Gastro pubs are all the rage lately. According to the dictionary, a gastro pub is a pub specializing in serving high quality food. I will amend that definition to include a well thought-out wine list, interesting cocktails, and craft beer. So, by definition, the brand new Cowan’s Public is a gastro pub. But let’s not call it that, shall we? Because almost every new restaurant that opens up these days is using that term, and few really live up to the definition.
Today’s “gastro pub” is yesterday’s “gourmet.” The definition of gourmet is “a connoisseur of fine food and drink.” Throughout the 60s and 70s, when a restaurant was touted as having “gourmet” food, patrons knew it was going to be an exquisite experience. Then every Tom, Dick, & Harry food purveyor started using it to describe their offerings; little by little the term got watered down, and today it really means nothing (I laugh to myself every time I see “gourmet” splashed across a menu or an ad). The same line of thinking could be applied to gastro pub. Let’s review.
I spent a leisurely afternoon at Cowan’s a couple of Saturdays ago, soaking up the cool retro vibe, chatting with the two brothers who own the place, and enjoying the delicious food. This is not your typical “bar food,” my friends. There are no mozzarella sticks or onion rings on this menu. This is bar food kicked up a notch or two (or three). Exhibit A: what bar do you know that serves perfectly cooked Pan-Seared Brussels with a Champagne Mustard Vinaigrette and Shallots?Exhibit B: Chipotle Deviled Eggs (lusciously creamy with slight heat at the back). And a kickin’ Burger with Bacon-Onion Jam, Sharp White Cheddar, house made pickle, and Sriracha Ketchup on a Balthazar brioche roll! I rest my case.
Owned by Tom and Dean Maroulakos, they both have experience working in the bar/restaurant industry in New York City, and Dean has a design background. They set their sights on an area fixture – the Nutley Pub. The bar, which had gone through a few owners and incarnations since it was opened in 1934, had fallen into serious disrepair. Anybody else would have been overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to turn this post-prohibition bar into something that today’s savvy customer would want to spend time in. But Tom & Dean took it on, and doing most of the renovation themselves, have transformed it into a modern day bar/restaurant but with a nod to its heritage. No detail has been overlooked. From the curved art deco bar to the restored tin ceiling, to the authentic artifacts that are sprinkled about, these two know what they’re doing.
The proprietors have installed experienced bartenders who are passionate about their job. They want to educate their customers but in a fun way. In addition to a rotating selection of craft beers and ciders, they have some great signature cocktails (I had a terrific Mojito the day I visited), and a nice wine selection. Next time, I’ve got my sights set on their Strawberry Airmail cocktail, made with Real McCoy rum, muddled strawberry, lime juice, honey syrup, and topped with Prosecco.
On the food front, the kitchen is headed by Justin Caldwell (formerly of Upstairs in Montclair). Justin has developed a terrific menu of small plates made for sharing (such as the Brussels Sprouts and Deviled Eggs mentioned above). They will begin to introduce some larger entrée plates this month.
On a subsequent visit, I tried the Summer Salad - watercress, marinated tomato, quinoa, roasted chickpeas, charred corn, and grilled haloumi cheese, with a sherry vinaigrette. I added some nicely charred shrimp to round it out and with a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc, it was the perfect late spring dinner.
While Cowan’s Public is keeping the brothers plenty busy, this dynamic duo already has another project in the works. They are in the process of developing a farmhouse-type restaurant in Clifton. They will be renovating an 8,000 square foot former restaurant and outfitting it with a post and beam bar, outside garden, and seating for 150 people. They are targeting early 2016 for the opening. While Cowan’s is set up more as a bar/restaurant, the focus for Clifton will be food heavy. Sounds good to me.
My bottom line: don’t go to Cowan’s Public if you’re looking for one of those faux gastro pubs. But if you’re looking for inventive, well-cooked food, dynamite cocktails, and a cool place to relax, managed by the personable Maroulakos brothers, discover Cowan’s – the “un-gastro” pub.
229 Centre Street
Open Monday – Friday, 4pm – 2am
Saturday, Sunday: 12pm – 2am
Sunday brunch: 12 – 4pm