- Walter Novak
- Chef Pete Schellenbach shows off his salmon and veal porterhouse.
Next thing you should know is that the space is handsome. Not over-the-top, glitzy, or gimmicky, but comfortable and urbane, with a tasteful juxtaposition of old brick, contemporary lighting, and sleek, shiny surfaces that make it a good fit for its trendy location and a smart backdrop for executive chef Pete Schellenbach's muscular cuisine.
The third thing that you should know is that Jac's service, while well-intentioned, is still a work in progress. Whether it was due to inexperience, inadequate training, or an innate lack of people skills, we can't imagine; but servers' faux pas varied from the routine to the uniquely disturbing. Neglecting to crumb the table is one thing, after all; cutting yourself on a wine bottle -- and then bleeding all over the table -- is something else entirely.
Still, considering the restaurant's rocky start, two outta three really ain't bad. Less than two weeks after its June 27 opening, Jac's lost both its original chef and its general manager, in a small melodrama that involved bitterness on both sides. Along with key personnel, the restaurant's original concept of French and Creole-style cookery went south too. So when Schellenbach and new GM Eric Barone came onboard in late July, charged not only with developing a new culinary persona, but with helping Jac's move past the earlier troubles, we suspect both felt as if they had been handed a full plate.
But if Schellenbach's kitchen started out with something to prove, today it should have confidence to spare. A graduate of Vermont's New England Culinary Institute, Schellenbach approaches his work as he would an art form, generally turning out dishes that are well focused yet shockingly robust.
In a well-thought-out nod to his club-hopping clientele as well as to current trends, the chef has divided his menu into three sections -- small, medium, and large plates -- roughly analogous to apps, light entrées, and sturdy main courses. Prices run from $4 for a single roasted shrimp kissed with lemon oil and rosemary to $30 for a brie-and-bacon-crusted filet served with potato cakes, Swiss chard, and roasted-shallot demiglace. For our money, though, the best values are found among the medium plates, where portion sizes are ample but not gigantic, and prices hover in the low to mid-teens.
Take the seared sea scallops, their natural juices transformed into savory caramel and their snowy interiors as moist and delicate as custard. Played against a rustic ragout of sautéed apples and spicy chorizo, then finished with a warm fig vinaigrette, the dish played an autumnal symphony bursting with dark, earthy, and fruit-inflected overtones.
Sliced and fanned across a rich risotto piqued with toasted pistachios and sun-dried cherries, seared Muscovy duck breast soared too. Even a humble duet of miniburgers was a winner. Served on slightly sweet, glossy-domed buns, with a skein of freshly cut fries and a stack of tangy homemade bread-and-butter pickles, the patties were full of honest beefiness and free of pretense.
Among the starter-style small plates, noteworthy dishes included warm, mousselike baked goat cheese laced with lavender and blood orange; smooth butternut-squash bisque garnished with crumbled gorgonzola and crème fraîche; and Jac's Salad, a toss of field greens, diced tomato, and a brisk, well-balanced champagne vinaigrette. Mix or match any of these with a medium plate, and a delightful dinner is yours for less than $25 -- a great value, especially by Warehouse District standards.
If you prefer to splurge, turn your attention to the large plates. Perhaps the grilled Bay of Fundy salmon "pinwheel," on a bed of roasted-fennel risotto? Or the lush grilled hanger steak, with caramelized-onion mashed potatoes and shiny "wilted" spinach leaves that hug the tongue like silk? Or, maybe best of all, the gigantic veal porterhouse, buttery soft and served on a tongue-tickling bed of tiny, couscous-like pastini, then finished in a chunky sauce of tomato and kalamata olives, shimmering with the flavors of the Italian countryside? All were knockouts.
Jac's also offers a tempting selection of mostly Italian and West Coast wines, by the bottle or the glass. Despite its vicious attack on our waiter, our bottle of Michael Pozzan's Knight's Valley Cab ($30) proved cheerful and good-natured, once settled into Jac's high-quality stemware.
If the kitchen has a relative weakness, it is desserts. Amply sized and handsomely plated, items like chocolate-chip semifreddo and a tall cylinder of frozen mousse tended toward the toothachingly sweet. Still, we enjoyed the soufflélike chocolate pudding, where garnishes of crunchy pecans and tart crème fraîche added enough tang and texture to survive our taste test.
And that's the final thing you should know about Jac's: Despite a rough launch, when it comes to surviving, the place is proving itself as scrappy -- and as worthy -- as they come.