Welcome to the Dollhouse:
Diminutive Jack’s Got a Big Heart
Remember Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice? While the owners were out, the mice broke into a doll’s house in the nursery and tried to eat the food that was laid out on the dinner table. Well, I felt like one of those mice the other night, as I sat with a friend in the upstairs dining room of Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in the East Village. It’s one of the tiniest restaurants I’ve ever seen, on two floors of an old carriage house. The ground floor is a pocket-sized oyster bar, and the dining room above, where we were ushered in for dinner, has just six tables. There were logs blazing in the fireplace, and through the mullion windows the pristine snow that lay on the sill seemed fake. I half-expected the face of a Beatrix Potter cat to appear at the window and a large paw to spear the fish from my plate.
Jack’s is the latest enterprise of Jack and Grace Lamb, who also own the exquisite sushi restaurant, Jewel Bako, directly across the street. At Jack’s, the food is as quirky as the setting: a highly refined combination of Southern and French. The first night I came here, the only main course was pigs’ cheeks seared in bacon fat and cooked with collard greens and turnips. They arrived in a cast-iron casserole with steamed langoustines that were sprinkled with pork cracklings-strange, but very good. We had begun with the “deconstructed” oysters Rockefeller, which were lightly poached and served on a mixture of spinach and watercress cooked in a beurre noire, and topped with pieces of crisp pancetta. Delicious. And we finished with the one dessert offered, bananas Foster, made with a baba soaked in New Orleans rum.
You will see the chef, Allison Vines-Rushing,whenyouwalk through her minuscule green gingham kitchen to enter the upstairs dining room. She is from Louisiana, where she did a stint at Brennan’s in New Orleans before moving to New York to work at Picholine and then at Alain Ducasse for two years (as the only woman in his kitchen). When I saw her kitchen at Jack’s, where she works with one assistant, I was taken back to the days in my Village apartment, where I used to cook for dinner parties in a converted closet, piling the dishes along the hall, tripping over the cat and opening the front door if I had to fry anything. But unlike my kitchen, hers is as spotless as a doll’s house; her knives, set out in a neat line on the counter, are so shiny and clean they look as though they’ve never been used.
The Lambs have an eye for detail, from the decorative silver birds perched on the tables to the antique pearl-handled knives and forks, the silver toast racks and the filigree bronze egg cups that hold a quail egg topped with chives and truffles. Jack’s has a short but first-rate wine list, too, with well-chosen international wines and many choices by the glass. Our waiter, a young Frenchman from Brittany dressed in a black velvet Bob le Flambeur jacket and sporting long sideburns, was mad keen on his wines and extremely knowledgeable. The Gigondas he recommended was from the lower-priced end of the list; we expected it to be ordinary, and instead it was superb.
If you go all out and order the tasting menu ($85), you will have tried pretty much everything the restaurant has to offer (except the foie gras). We began with Malpeque oysters topped with caviar from Mississippi paddlefish, whose small gray beads have a clean, clear flavor. A tiny Taylor Bay scallop in its shell followed (tasting as though it had been fished out of the water minutes before), then shrimp with aioli sauce and briny littleneck clams.
Ms. Vines-Rushing’s Southern background shows in her thick, dark, peppery “Prudhomme” soup, made with turtles from Louisiana, and in the black-eyed peas that come with the rouget, which is not blackened but roasted. Barbecued lobster, buttery and juicy, arrives in a spicy sauce on a slice of toasted baguette. Quail-the right-sized bird for the diminutive dining room-is glazed with chicory (the stuff they put in coffee in New Orleans), stuffed with Swiss chard and served atop a bed of creamy grits. The chicory reminds me a little of Mexican mole. My companion, being male, ate his bird with a real-men-don’t-eat-quail expression on his face. “It’s delicious, but I always find quail so fiddly,” he said.
An intriguing sorbet made with iced tea appears before the cheese course. It’s an interesting idea, but I found it too sweet. Jack’s serves perfectly ripened arstisanal cheeses, which include a Fourme d’Ambert, a sheep’s-milk cheese and a triple cream from Louisiana. The plate is garnished with a tart satsuma-orange marmalade. Instead of bananas Foster, one night there was a pear poached in red wine. Served with whipped cream and nuts, it was not overly sweet.
During the course of the evening, Mr. Lamb came in several times, racing up and down the narrow stairs like Mr. Bean. My companion laughed: “This place makes me think of those submarines where half the men have to stay in their bunks while the others are up working.”
Downstairs, the room-under the eye of an avuncular French maître d’ in black tie-reminded me of the kind of place you can still find hidden away in some neighborhoods of Paris. The walls are covered with red gingham, the tables set with white cloths and red water glasses. Unfortunately, the red vinyl banquettes are uncomfortable-they make a church pew seem like a Barcalounger, and if you don’t sit up straight, you’ll find yourself gently sliding off towards the floor. But the place has great charm, and a soundtrack of jazz from the 30’s and 40’s provides the background music, along with the lonely New York sounds of Coleman Hawkins. You could just drop in here for a plate of oysters freshly shucked at the bar (they come on old green china oyster plates with six different dressings, if you like) or sit down to a spectacular fruits de mer platter.
Jack’s is one of the oddest and most original restaurants I’ve ever been to. In The Tale of Two Bad Mice , all hell breaks loose when the mice find out that the food is made of plaster of Paris. No such danger here.