Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar – NYC
October 31, 2008
If you believe Eater.com, Jack’s is past its expiration date. Back in October 2007, Eater had placed it on Deathwatch and diagnosed it with only six months more to live (Over/Under Shutter of April 2007). Well, I hope Eater continues to be wrong because we just ate there last weekend and it was great.
The first time we were at Jack’s was for my birthday many years ago. Back then, it was on the ground floor of a narrow townhouse just a block away from its current location. Tables were crammed into such a tiny space that one could literally rub elbows with one’s neighbors. But the food…oh the food. Even though this was such a long time ago, my taste buds still tingle at the memory of the decadent butter poached lobster from their tasting menu.
Nowadays, a curb appeal challenged storefront on 2nd Avenue & 6th St is what Jack’s calls home. It’s so invisible I almost walk right past it. Inside, it’s not much bigger than the old place. I counted ten tables for two plus counter seating. In spite of this, making reservations was a breeze; in fact, I was able to snag a prime-time 8pm seating just a few hours before. I’m not sure whether this necessarily justifies Eater’s Deathwatch. Maybe it was just Halloween and fine dining was the last thing on everyone’s mind. I chose to sit at the counter (over my husband’s objections) even though we could have had our pick of tables. I wanted to see the chef cook … or, in this case, assemble.
The chef was sandwiched in a cramped galley style workspace. In front of him were a dozen or so prepped ingredients in plastic cups as well as pre-made sauces in squeeze bottles. Behind him were two small portable electric burners, like the kind one would take on a camping trip. I looked at them dubiously, hard to imagine our dinner tonight would originate from those.
Instead of the tasting menu, we chose a few dishes from their list of small plates. Jack’s ‘tapas’ are influenced by France rather than Spain; the cooking philosophy, more refined than rustic. These are dishes that one might spy on the menus of French restaurants frequented by expense account businessmen and Park Avenue blue bloods sixty blocks north of us. The prices, however, were much gentler. Except for the butter poached lobster which clocked in at $18, the rest of the small plates ranged from $10-$12.
We started with a half dozen Hama Hama oysters…
… followed by tempura style fried oysters topped with tobiko and surrounded by a moat of potato leek soup.
Next were clams and chorizo in a garlic and cherry tomato broth. The latter was so good that we mopped up every drop with bread.
After this came the butter poached lobster (see top picture) accompanied by fava beans, carrots and crisp radish chips. The lobster was perfectly cooked to just short of opaque; yet, the taste seemed better in my memory than in reality. It just wasn’t as sinfully buttery as I recalled. I hate to nitpick but another little detail that bothered me was the uneven size of the carrots. Shouldn’t they have been identical little cubes? The French are notoriously meticulous about this. The rationale for such obsessive-compulsive attention to uniformity is so that the food cooks evenly. In this case, the carrots were cut in odd shapes and sizes resulting in some pieces being firmer than others.
Onto heavier fare…pheasant meatballs with homemade linguine in a fresh tomato sauce. The noodles were thin and delicate, more flat ramen than robust linguine; however, they retained enough bite to still be considered al dente. On the side were cracklings made of pheasant skin that provided the crunch to the dish. I have to admit, it was a toss-up between this and the clams chorizo as my favorite for the evening.
Our last savory course was breaded and fried sweetbreads served with dollops of white and orange mayonnaise. They reminded me of tartar sauce (with a hint of horseradish?) and thousand island dressing, respectively.
For dessert we shared a white chocolate nougat rolled in coconut chips with bruleed bananas topped by a rum raisin foam.
I watched the chef assemble this dish. Upon taking out the pre-made nougat roll from the freezer, he let it rest while he turned his attention to the bananas. He poured a heaping amount of sugar on six slices of the fruit then hit it with a blowtorch until the sugar caramelized. After this, he took a canister that looked like a small fire extinguisher and squeezed the lever. Out came the rum raisin foam like it was hair mousse.
We polished off our dessert and espresso quickly, expecting the waitress to clear our plates and bring the check. Imagine our surprise when she laid down another set of spoons for both of us. Apparently, the chef had decided to give us a special treat in the form of a blueberry sorbet with coconut foam.
We were full, but we tucked into it appreciatively anyway. While we were eating, the chef explained the mechanics of the dish. Depending on the desired effect, foam can be made with different underlying agents. CO2 was added to the coconut foam to achieve a carbonated finish like soda or champagne; on the other hand, NO2 was used for the rum raisin foam to get volume rather than fizz.
This is definitely one of the better meals I’ve had in weeks. I’m not sure if Jack’s has really lost its ability to pack in diners night after night like in the old days, but it would certainly be a shame if Eater’s predictions came true.