Friday, May 14, 2010

Back In Time - The Classic American Dining Room of Jar

Some of the most bewitching restaurants are those that affect you the moment you step inside. Whether it's the interior design, lighting, noise level, ambiance and/or crowd, it's always a pleasure to be impressed with a restaurant before you even take a bite of their food. Jar is one such place, with an absolutely charming dining room that evokes a feeling of being transported to another era, an America of half a century ago, but through the lens of a Hollywood movie.

Jar is the brainchild of celebrated Chef-Owner Suzanne Tracht (who worked under Chef Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile), who along with her Chef de Cuisine Preech Narkthong, have developed their spin on the classic American Chophouse.

I've heard much about Jar over the years, but just never got around to going until one night, some dear friends and I finally decided to give it a try. According to their website, Jar was designed to be in the style of a 1940s Supper Club and it delivers in spades. I fell in love with Jar's ambiance the first time I saw the room. It's warm, a bit loud (but nowhere near Comme Ca or Mozza decibel levels), and has that "it" quality to make you feel relaxed and welcome.

One of my guests chooses a bottle of 2002 Domaine Ligneres Piece de Roche Carignan for the table.

It's peppery with some nice red fruit throughout, and has a lively acidity. It holds up against the big Beef dishes we try later.

A quick look at the menu reflects Chef Tracht's vision with Jar: There are some classic American dishes - Devilled Eggs, Fried Ipswich Clams, Roasted Salmon, a variety of Steaks, etc., but they all have a subtle spin on them in the descriptions. Sure there are Black Mussels, but it's served with Ong Choy (Water Morning Glory), or their Chicken is made with Kaffir Lime Leaf and Lemongrass. They have Roasted Asparagus, but also Duck Fried Rice.

We begin with a classic Iceberg Wedge, Blue Cheese Dressing appetizer.

It turns out to be everything you'd expect with this dish: Crisp, cool Iceberg Lettuce, a mild Blue Cheese creamy dressing and Red Onion slivers that've been toned down a bit. It's safe, it's classic, and fits the bill if you're in the mood for an Iceberg Wedge as a starter.

For this 1st visit, their soup of the day is a Lobster Tomato Soup.

There's a very clean, oceanic Lobster essence coming through with each sip, balanced by the Tomato, although it's a touch salty.

We continue with another special of the evening: Fried Squash Blossoms (with Spicy Lobster Shiitake Ponzu Sauce).

The Squash Blossoms are nicely fried, with a slight crispy crust. The Blossoms themselves are extremely mild and the Spicy Ponzu Sauce is a bit overpowering for such a delicate item.

The next dish to arrive is their Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab appetizer.

It arrives hot, slightly crisped, but oversaturated with oil, leaving a heavy, greasy aftertaste. The Crab itself is quite fresh, though, sweet and slightly briny (in a good way).

After taking a bite of the Grilled Calamari Salad, it's almost as if the kitchen was setting us up with something greasy to experience something as refreshing as this.

First off, the Calamari is grilled perfectly: A light chew, but still tender and supple, and the Jalapeno Lime Vinaigrette along with the fresh Micro Herbs and Mint is brilliant. Easily the best appetizer I've tried in all my visits. :)

After experiencing the wonderful Grilled Calamari Salad, I'm thankful the next dish doesn't prove to be too much of a letdown: Maine Lobster, Green Mango and Tomato.

The Maine Lobster has a clean, bright taste to it. But it's the combination of the Lobster with the Green Mango slivers and Italian Parsley that make it really sing. If there's one disappointing aspect about the dish, it's that it's far too tart at times.

Our first entree arrives at this point: Oven Roasted Cod with Lemon Caper Relish.

Subtle, succulent and moist, the Cod is roasted by an adept kitchen staff, but like the Maine Lobster Salad, the Cod suffers from a complete overdose of tart flavors from the liberal use of Capers (and I love Capers, but this is simply too much).

Our server gushes over their Kansas City Steak (16 Ounces, Dry Aged), so we had to give it a try. :)

Dry Aging truly does wonders for Beef and Jar's Dry Aged Kansas City Steak is another excellent example. There's an enticing, complex, real *beefy* taste to their Kansas City Steak, with little explosions of Peppercorns here and there (from the Peppercorn encrusted exterior). It's nowhere near as intensely beefy as Wolfgang's Steakhouse's famous Dry Aged Porterhouse, but it's enjoyable. The pairing with their Creamy Horseradish optional sauce is decent but I prefer my Horseradish with more bite.

As enjoyable as their Kansas City Steak is, it pales in comparison to Jar's Signature Pot Roast.

On paper, "Pot Roast" sounds pretty boring and safe, but when it's as mouth-wateringly tender, subtle and absolutely luscious as Suzanne Tracht's version, there's nothing you can do except roll your eyes in absolute joy and ecstasy. Everyone at the table had an ear-to-ear grin after trying a bite. (^_^) Outstanding.

After experiencing the highlight of their menu, their Lamb Shank (with Star Anise, Coriander and Garlic) does an admirable job of minimizing any letdown.

The Lamb tastes very clean (made that day (as opposed to a few too many Lamb Shanks in recent memory that taste like they were made 1-3 days earlier)), soft, yet still maintaining a touch of firmness with each bite. There isn't much Star Anise flavor coming through (despite it being highlighted on the menu), but the Coriander and Garlic make up for it. It's not an amazing experience like their Pot Roast, but it's a good, respectable preparation of Lamb Shank.

I love Duck and am always eager to try a restaurant's interpretation of this beloved fowl, so I couldn't wait to dig into their Duck Fried Rice.

Sadly, it's pretty underwhelming. It's not horrible, but as a Fried Rice dish, the Rice lacks the proper texture and punch of a great wok-cooked version.

Their Braised Beet Greens side also falls a bit short.

It's super tender, but it's almost a textural mush at this point, and it also turns out to be far too tart to be enjoyable past the first bite or two. :(

During my 2nd visit, I had the pleasure of dining with my 'dachi Jotaru. We began with their Fried Ipswich Clams (with Cocktail Sauce and Roasted Garlic Tartar Sauce).

I have, unfortunately, never tried an East Coast version of Fried Ipswich Clams with Bellies, so I have no frame of reference, but hearing from fellow Hounds about how rare it is to find Ipswich Clams with Bellies here in So Cal, I'm thankful to have gotten a chance to try them at Jar.

The first thing that strikes me is the deep briny funk (in a good way) of the Ipswich Clam. But then there's a distinct chewiness with each piece (probably due to the inclusion of the Belly). The chewiness isn't something I care for, but the rest of the Clam is just fine, with a slightly crisped battered exterior.

The next dish to arrive is their Rib-eye Steak (14 Ounces).

The USDA Prime Rib-eye is non-aged, but comes across fresh and lightly beefy with heavy notes of Black Pepper. But beyond that, the problems arise: I know Rib-eye is a fattier cut of steak, but there were significant chunks of just pure fat (more than I've ever had in any Rib-eye to date). Then in the parts that weren't near the fat pockets, the Steak was extremely chunky, dense and very chewy.

The Lobster Bearnaise Sauce is excellent. It's very creamy with a clear Lobster essence coming through.

Having enjoyed two of the selections from their "Braises and Sautes" section of the menu previously, we order their Coq Au Vin (Red Wine, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Pearl Onions, Crimini) in the hopes that the streak of winning dishes continues.

Sadly, the Coq Au Vin tastes really old and reheated (with the funk of something made ~3 days earlier). And for something traditionally slow braised, there are some disappointingly dry portions of Chicken featured here. Finally, the sauce and flavors taste really flat and muted. Perhaps I've been spoiled by Chef Florent Marneau's delightful Coq Au Vin at Marche Moderne, but this is probably something I won't be ordering again.

Their Steamed Asparagus is firm, slightly crisp, fresh and just cooked through. Perfect.

Their side of French Fries (with Garlic and Parsley) tastes like a fancier version of Curly Fries found at national chains around town. It's not bad at all, nicely seasoned, but it's less garlicky than what I thought it might be like.

We finish off dinner with their Butterscotch Pudding with Salted Caramel Glaze.

It's extremely smooth and silky, with a deep layering of flavors. It's thankfully not too sweet, and the contrasting of the Pudding with the Salted Caramel is wonderful and very well done. I prefer Pizzeria Mozza's Butterscotch Budino, but this is an excellent dessert and a nice way to finish the evening. :)

I've always heard good things about brunch at Jar, so it was the perfect excuse to revisit the restaurant a 3rd time. :)

As we're seated, their complementary bread service begins with a charming, lightly sweet Walnut Honey Bread (sourced from Susina Bakery on Beverly). It's moist and yielding, interspersed with the soft crunch of Walnuts with a touch of Honey accented throughout.

We start with a Jar Chopped Salad (Chicken, Parma Ham, Fennel, Onion, Green Olive, Cabbage, Feta).

There are some interesting ideas behind this dish, but in execution it's simply too salty. The Fresh Cabbage is a good base, but the generous amounts of Parma Ham, Green Olives and Feta Cheese just add too much sodium to what's supposed to be a "healthier / lighter" dish (Salad).

Their Chilaquiles (Roasted Pork, Creme Fraiche, Parmesan) is a real surprise.

The slightly soft Tortilla Chips hold up well with the delicate Roasted Pork, fluffy, buttery Scrambled Eggs, and the fragrant, lightly spicy, homemade Salsa Verde. Delicious! :)

Continuing on, their Lobster Benedict (Two Poached Eggs, Char Sui Pork, Pea Tendrils, Lobster Bearnaise) arrives next.

In general, it's a great Benedict. The Eggs are cooked perfectly, the Lobster chunks are sweet and bright, and the Lobster Bearnaise Sauce is a great match and replacement for the traditional Hollandaise Sauce. The only one hiccup in this dish, though, is the gristly, fatty "Char Sui" slice of Pork: There's too much gristle and/or half-cooked fat to be pleasant.

I'm very curious about their Pot Roast Hash after falling in love with their Pot Roast at dinnertime.

It's sadly a distant echo of the lush, buttery goodness of their Pot Roast dinner. :( The Pot Roast Beef itself has been cooked on a griddle / sauteed to a much drier consistency (losing that beautiful, juicy, buttery quality in its original form), and the Eggs are completely overcooked.

Chunks of Potatoes, Tomatoes and Bell Peppers help to add diversity, but overall as a Hash dish, it's not something that I find myself craving.

One of their specials of the day is a Shrimp & Crab Cake Sandwich (with Applewood Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato).

Served on Rustic Bread (which is too thick and very dry), the Shrimp and Crab Cake imparts a potent pungent brininess and lacks that clean, pure, light oceanic sweetness you'd hope to get in a great Crab Cake.

Their side of Home Fries are just fine. A simple combination of Potatoes, Bell Peppers and Onions, it's a classic accompaniment for an American Breakfast/Brunch.

Service has been a bit inconsistent over my 3 visits. During my 1st and 3rd visit, our servers were accommodating (if a bit rushed) and adequate. During my 2nd visit, we had non-existent service with our server basically disappearing after taking our order. He appeared when we were done with dinner (and we had to flag down busboys for our basic needs while he was gone for most of the meal). Prices range from $10 - $41 (with Market Prices for fresh Seafood items) for Dinner; and $7 - $23 for Brunch. Desserts range from $7 - $10.

Jar represents a classy, upscale neighborhood restaurant with average-to-very good dishes in a beautiful throwback dining room. For every slight misstep (overly greasy Soft Shell Crab, dry Rib-eye, flat Coq Au Vin), there's an enjoyable counterbalance (bright Grilled Calamari Salad, delightful Butterscotch Pudding and divine Signature Pot Roast), but it's frustrating to see so many ~average-to-slightly-above-average dishes in such a lovely setting. And one minor quibble about their seating arrangements: Some of the tables along the outer walls are too tightly packed together, which leads to some unnecessary "communal" dining at times (during one visit, the table next to us couldn't conduct a conversion without dropping profanity every other word (no joke), and since our tables are so close, we had no option except to suffer this the entire evening).

Ultimately, one's enjoyment of Jar depends on what one is looking for. For some solid renditions of American classics with a twist (at a premium), in a charming 1940s-inspired dining room, Jar fits the bill. I'd gladly go back just for their amazing Signature Pot Roast alone. :) Probably the most fitting image of Jar was seeing Henry Winkler (The Fonz from Happy Days) smiling and shaking hands with fellow diners as he was making his way to a table. It was all smiles and good times in a classic American setting.

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

8225 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tel: (323) 655-6566

Hours: [Brunch] Sun, 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Sun - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.


joey said...

Your food blog's reviews are wonderfully detailed and photographed. Just a suggestion though- I don't know if its for lack of time or know how, but you should really consider doing some white balancing in your post-processing. Just my 2cents. keep rocking!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi joey,

Thanks for the comments and suggestions. I'm no guru when it comes to digital post-processing of photos; apologies on the quality of the photos in this review. Jar is notoriously dark and I really don't want to use flash in such a nice setting. I'll have to look into the white balancing, thanks.

Anna A. said...

I've always been curious about Jar, looks like its best to stick to the classics at this place. But now I'm curious about finding a great duck fried rice joint!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Yah, if you go to Jar, get their Signature Pot Roast and Butterscotch Pudding and you're set. :) Let me know what you think if you go. :)

lockeender said...

white balancing can be done with a white card or white piece of paper before shooting, if your camera lets you store a setting. put the white object in the light/location where your dishes will be when you take pictures, use your camera and white balance on the white object. The white balance will adjust settings so that the photo is taken as though it were under white light (like a flash, which is white light) rather than yellow/orange light of incandescent bulbs or the green/blue light of florescent.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi lockeender,

Thanks so much for the info. :)

Eddie Lin said...

Another really amazing and detailed write up! Enjoyed it.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eddie,

Thanks for the kind words. :)

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