Since living in Baltimore (post-college), with the exception of a brief 6-month stint in Fells Point, I have always been a West-Syder. By “West Side”, I of course mean The Peninsula: Federal Hill/Sobo, for all five and a half years. Usually, within the first year of living in this city, one becomes keenly aware of its intense provinciality and insularity…read: I have spent more nights in Manhattan, hell, even Brooklyn (NY, not the ‘other’ peninsula) bars than Canton bars since living here.
Despite not having spent much time there, I have always been fascinated with Canton. The square has some terrific sports bars and pubs, and as one ventures away from the square, character-laden dives and gems like McHaffey’s abound. Canton, like Locust Point, also embodies Baltimore’s ‘old and new’. Tide Point, The Can Company, Camden Yards, a host of other adaptive re-uses of relics from an industrial age that are fused with the biotech/service age and rebirth of urban life – all of these places represent the complexity (and potential) of Baltimore City’s lifestyle. Also representative of this fusion is a restaurant and bar in the middle of a residential block of Canton – Jack’s Bistro.
My first trip to Chicago entailed a weekend-long stumble from bar to bar across Wrigleyville with one of my best friends who bartended at The Sports Corner, a Chicago institution that nearly rivals Wrigley itself (stay with me). It was on this trip that I first saw the word, “Industry” followed by a “-75%” on a bill at a bar. Because my friend was embedded in the red-eyed, bloated-morning-face, tightly-knit industry of bartending in a post-college neighborhood, we drank for next to nothing, and my fascination with “The Industry” was born. This fascination goes beyond fun rental budgeting (read: cheap bar tabs). The fascination is more with the camaraderie and the ‘club’. I want to drink where bartenders go to drink. I want to eat where chefs go to eat. The latter is Jack’s slogan.
Depending on the time of night (or night itself), the crowd at Jack’s varies. On a Thursday night at 10pm, the crowd transitions from Foodies and Cantonites to ‘Industry’. While sitting at the bar, I inadvertedly eavesdropped on conversations involving BSSC kickball games to how some sous-chef effed up a whole batch of béchamel. (A quick side note: if you consider yourself even an amateur foodie, try hanging out with some chefs and/or culinary students. I find it fascinating on the whole, but I also equate it to amateur golfers hanging out with a PGA tour professional: you can realize real quickly that despite the fact you like gorging yourself with farm-to-table culinary creations, you probably are not equipped or willing to construct said creations for a living).
The crowd was eclectic but not overbearing, interesting but not intimidating, intellectual but not quite brilliant. In other words, as middle-of-the-road as Baltimore.
The atmosphere of Jack's is wholly representative of the heartwarming mix of old and new. For instance, if sitting at the bar and looking up, one will see exposed coaxial cable lines and power cords feeding the tube tvs and a fine pine bar. This sight is seemingly intentionally juxtaposed with nouveau local original art and killer reviews from Baltimore Mag and The Sun substantiating the KILLER food that is produced in their rowhouse kitchen (more on that later).
As with many converted rowhome establishments, Jack's chose to keep the imitation linoleum ceiling, which I personally find visually appealing and authentic. However, in the spirit of fusing the old and the new, this ceiling is ornamented with brushed steel light fixtures set to the dim setting. The exposed brick invigorates the warmth that could and should be present in so many converted rowhome bars. The back dining room has the definitive vibe of a cozy restaurant.
Overall, Jack's atmosphere is somewhere between Charleston and BAR in Fells Point. The way in which it falls on this spectrum, however, is what makes the magic. The decor is tastefully done, but enough of 'the old' is kept to give the restaurant an authentic vibe.
If there is one thing this barcrawler-turned-foodie (well, still part-time barcrawler) likes, its creative cocktails. I have gone as far tobacco-infused honey in lieu of simple syrup, and I fully plan to continue outward toward the obscure. So much of the joy of food comes from unabated creativity, and we are fortunate to live in an age bathed in, and a country founded on, freedom.
There is a beautiful smattering of cocktails for all palettes and tastes. The Jack's Gin is fantastic, combining Hendrick's with housemade basil-infused syrup, served over rocks. Baltimore Liquid's predilections for tequila and heat also would lead to a solid endorsement of Jalapeno Margarita-tini, which uses house-infused jalapeno tequila. As one reads down the menu, the drinks continue to get more adventurous, including a buttered-popcorn martini, Jack's Butter-Tea (green tea vodka and chai tea). After some gin, I moved on to several Belgian beers I had not previously heard of (and since cannot remember).
The beer list includes a variety of obscure pilsners, stouts, trappists, porters, tripels, lambics, and beyond. They offer flights of beer for those feeling adventurous (three (3) six-ounce pours for $8). Further, almost as if to score points with Baltimore Liquid, Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light are where they belong: on THE BOTTOM of the menu.
As one reads down the menu, the wine list is organized in ascending order of body, a plus for those who know what they like, but don't necessarily have a particular brand loyalty (or enough brain cells left from the last oenophiliac binge). There are solid reds and whites from Napa, Russian River, Australia, South Africa and France. Price points range from $22/bottle to $150/bottle for Napa's coveted Axios Cabernet Sauvignon.
At first blush it seemed a little standoffish, but after some (as referred to in "The Switch" episode of Seinfeld) playful humor, the bartender seemed to lighten up and discuss the prolific food & drink on the menu. The cassoulet jumped out at me, and the bartender affirmed my gastronomic intuition (more on the dish later). All the drinks, including the specialty cocktails, were mixed and served promptly, and a waning glass did not go unnoticed. The food was brought out on a timely basis, and the food runner (who was also a server) placed them in front of my salivating cakehole with a smile. Teamwork amongst the staff goes a long way in providing not only good service, but also in enhancing atmosphere.
Put simply, the 'Baltimore Attitude' came through to a limited extent, but the important components were there. The help didn't go out of their way to make conversation (unless you are by yourself, this is usually a good thing), but was attentive.
I saved the best for last. The shoestring poutine (for those of you who don't parle francais or mange francais - thin gravy cheese fries), had a decadent duck demi glace and foie gras sauce that prompted me to inhale like Bill Clinton on a jammer (or Monica on his jammer). My dining mate followed this with the crabcake, which was broiled well, had a hearty consistency and served with a parsnip puree that was as good for the soul as mashed potatoes made with heavy cream. The puree was smooth but hearty, and complimented the crabcake beautifully.
Now on to my cassoulet. I had never had this dish before, but was intrigued and while at Jacks, wanted to take a turn into Sous-videville (more on that below). The cassoulet at Jack's contains a sous vide duck breast, white beans, italian sausage, veggies, and tomato ($18.50: hoo-rah.)
Sous vide (literally: vacuum) is essentially a French process of cooking that chefs use to cook meat "low n' slow" to retain the meats flavor and maintain a heavenly tender consistency. The meat is placed into a plastic bag, vacuum-sealed, then immersed in water that is well-below boiling temperature.
The food is well conceived, executed, and plated/presented. Combined with the quick service and efficient kitchen, the overall food experience surpassed expectations. After countless recommendations from friends, I must say, my expectations were high.
In short, if you consider yourself a foodie, you need to check out Jack's...forget foodies, if you like a wide-array of flavors and textures between adult beverages (witness the prolific beer/wine/cocktail list) and clever dishes that you won't find anywhere else in Bmore (Jack's claims to be the only Baltimore restaurant that utilizes sous vide cooking), get over there asap.
Critics may knock the atmosphere for being disjointed, but, as I've lamented ad nauseum in this review: It's Baltimore. What isn't disjointed?
Take Home: A-