Dining at the new incarnation of Java Jack’s in Minneapolis, you may quickly conclude: that’s it; the code to creating great restaurants in south Minneapolis has been cracked. First, you need a great chef—in this case, Kevin Kathman. (The Grand Rapids native is most famous for his three-year stint at French Laundry, once the Greatest Restaurant in the World. His more recent stints have been in Minneapolis, at Restaurant Max, and within the Kim Bartmann empire, where he successfully ran Café Barbette and launched Bread and Pickle and Pat’s Tap.)
Next, stick this great chef somewhere cozy within walking distance of Lake Harriet. Have the chef serve food that ticks along on your receipt in calm little numbers like 7 and 11, and there you go—open the door and see all the people. Piccolo, Tilia, In Season—the success story of Minneapolis’s dining scene over the past few years has been written along these lines. And in many ways, Jack’s is ready to join these great places in first rank. I’ve had some things at Jack’s that were euphoria-inducing—fantastic, stupendous, get me my thesaurus (and if you know “Dixie,” please join in the chorus).
Paramount among the delights is brunch. The weekend brunch menu has a Mexican-inspired egg dish that’s as good a reason to live as any I know. It’s subtly titled “green chile,” and comes in a little cast-iron skillet half-filled with rich pork broth. In the center of the broth floats a chunk of meltingly tender pork topped with two over-easy eggs, a smattering of queso fresco, and a few discrete sprigs of cilantro. It’s a simple-sounding concoction, but oh how it combines. The broth is spicy, deep, savory, and smoky—almost whisky-like in its sheer concentration of flavor. The pork is spoon-tender and rich. The eggs, cheese, and crema add buoyancy and mellowness. If this doesn’t end up being a top dish of 2012, I’ll be surprised.
The braised-beef sandwich was phenomenal as well. Deeply concentrated, long-braised beef is piled high on a light, tender bun, then crowned with a drippy fried egg, a mess of peppery arugula, and a spicy counterpoint of horseradish aioli. It reminded me of the legendary egg sandwich at Eatery 112, so casual, such a toss-off, and at the same time really the height of perfection. I invite sandwich snobs from Paris to Seattle to give this one a whirl—you will be dazzled. The accompanying fries are also terrific; the skin on these well-caramelized beauties can go head-to-head with the best in the cities.
Everything I tried at brunch was great. The silver-dollar pancakes for the kiddies were feather-light, and the vegetarian eggs Florentine, with roasted tomato, braised beet greens, and a brown-butter hollandaise sauce, was delectable, truly showcasing Kathman’s talent for sensual meat-free cooking, which he previously demonstrated at Barbette. If Jack’s served brunch for dinner, it would be another south Minneapolis sensation with round-the-block lines.
Alas, when I’ve visited for dinner, my experiences were decidedly more complicated, with some dishes being absolutely exquisite and others showcasing the worst excesses of modern-cooking frippery. One of the jewels: a baked oyster that easily ranked as the best version of oysters Rockefeller this state has ever seen. The miso soup is also a triumph, with slivers of green herbs floating atop savory broth and little globes of black vinegar resting on the bottom, ready to explode in little tart pops. A tuna tataki—paper-thin slices of tuna supporting a tall brick of herb salad—was wonderful, the mint and soy bringing fresh energy to every bite. The chestnut mushroom agnolotti were gorgeous, every bite of the pasta plump, creamy, and lush. The desserts I tried were strong and fun, especially the densely moist chocolate bread pudding. Kathman modernizes it with a bit of bacon, then livens it up with a scoop of chilled banana mousse. Another gem: light passion-fruit panna cotta with jewel-like segments of red grapefruit.
But then there are the truly maddening parts of Jack’s, in which the worst clichés of modern cuisine seemed to roar onto the table and capture the meal in truffle-oil-slicked jaws. Speaking of truffles, the white-truffle custard I tried was so suffused with the musky goo it reeked like a potpourri; a sort of scallop crudo was ruined in exactly the same way. The “pot roast” was a geometric square of short ribs, well-charred on one side and dry otherwise, plated with abstract art-enthusiasm: a little carrot set here, a swoosh of purée there, a cylinder of potato off to one side, like a pedestal fallen during the sacking of Rome. The pork belly was much the same—a square of dry meat isolated on a plate, this time laid with a fallen tree of pickled burdock, and, off to one side, a tuft of spruce. It seemed like the opening gag for a bit on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: “So I went to this mah-durn restraunt, and the pot roast? A little bitty square, not even big enough to plug up a mouse hole, tough as the crowd that greeted Obama at the Texas Gun Club meeting, and I said to mahself, ‘If this is food, I’ll take beer…’”
I love modern cuisine, but at the end of the day, above all else, it has to be delightful and delicious. When it isn’t, it’s far worse than conventional food that fails, because conventional food almost never falls farther than the basic floor of what we settle for every day. It just so happened I had my kids with me for that meal. The little ones had ordered off the kiddie menu, and got the spaghetti with meat sauce and the chicken with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Each was actually exquisite: the chicken was crisp and perfectly cooked; the spinach was fresh, just wilted, and creamy; the mashed potatoes were the sort you want to eat with a ladle; and the modest spaghetti was ideally realized, the very meaty sauce tender and savorily spiced, but not overly done in any dimension. It was maddening to look around the restaurant and realize the best main courses—the really soul-satisfying ones—were the ones where the chefs were hiding their light, cooking for the unsophisticated. If this is Kathman phoning it in, I’ll take the phoning in—please.
Why would this be? Who knows. It did occur to me that all the great south Minneapolis restaurants of the last few years—Tilia, Piccolo, In Season—all came about after the well-reviewed chefs who own them endured considerable failures and came up swinging, with nothing more to prove and nothing more to lose, as it were. For the Minneapolis food scene’s sake, I hope Kathman’s evolution is swifter and less painful than his predecessors, because there’s no reason in the world Jack’s can’t be one of the best restaurants in the state.
Another south Minneapolis restaurant with a brilliant chef and both elite and affordable delights, though the simpler dishes are often the greatest joys.
Ideal Meal: Brunch, especially the green-chile pork extravaganza. Tip: Happy hour, Tue.–Fri., from 4 to 6 p.m., is a joy: curry lamb sliders, cheese fondue, light-as-a-feather fried shrimp. Yum. Hours: Breakfast Mon.–Fri.; Lunch Tue.–Fri.; Brunch Sat. and Sun.; Dinner Tue.–Sat. Prices: Most meals $8–$16. Address: Jack’s, 818 W. 46th St., Mpls., 612-825-2183, jacksmpls.com