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New Canton-ish Bistro Offers An Inviting, Fun Menu

Christopher Myers

Jack’s Bistro

Address:3123 Elliott St.
Baltimore, MD 21224

More on Jack’s Bistro.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 2/28/2007

In this new restaurant season of earnestness and self-regard, Jack’s Bistro arrives with perfect comic timing. Stinting nothing on professionalism, Jack’s Bistro exudes infectious good humor and free-spiritedness, which extends from the merry front bar right back to the pass-through kitchen, presided over by chef/owner Ted Stelzenmuller, a veteran of the Red Fish and Salt. The menu includes some bona fide doozies--macaroni and cheese with chocolate, a Jell-O ahi tuna salad, a cheeseburger soup, a tapioca-ball cocktail--but the balance of the menu is just slightly skewed globe-hopping bistro fare.

The restaurant’s name alludes to Jack Tripper’s restaurant from Three’s Company/Three’s a Crowd, but the gimmick ends there. Like Hampden’s Rocket to Venus, the name appears to be more of a governing principle than a launch pad for theme-restaurant excess. The new space, which used to house Doobie’s and two incarnations of the Elliott Street Café, is bistro-tasteful and warm, its small marble-floored back dining room painted a restful clay hue and decorated sparingly.

Supplementing the bistro’s regular offerings is a prix fixe menu that changes monthly, from which some items can be ordered à la carte, and features a different world cuisine each time. In early February, the subject was, of all places, Sweden, and the choices included gravlax, an egg-topped beef-and-onions dish, and a pork loin in caraway-and-cider sauce. These were, frankly, resistible, but the effort behind them suggested a kitchen ready not only to throw some curveballs but to keep itself interested, too.

The front of the house comes across as engaged, as well. Jack’s Bistro doesn’t take reservations, but an inquiring phone call is returned with a promise to look after the caller’s welfare when he arrives. The service here was so unobtrusively attentive that accompanying diners began to suspect that the staff knew a reviewer was in the house. (It didn’t.)

And Jack’s Bistro pulled off yet another rule-breaking trick--unlike most other restaurants, the appetizers here were less compelling than the entrées. The restaurant’s signature app, a variation on elote ($4.75), Mexican grilled corn on the cob, garnished with Parmesan cheese, red pepper, butter, and sea salt, doesn’t come off well--the stuff isn’t sticking to the corn, which itself isn’t sweet enough. Something called a logom ($9), described as Swedish snack food, wraps up a grilled hot dog, shrimp salad, mashed potatoes, fried onions, and lettuce in a soft flatbread. It probably works fine as Stockholm street fare--or a late-night bite--but it’s unwieldy and too filling as a bistro starter. From the Swedish menu, toasted baguettes ($6) are topped with manchego cheese, serrano ham, white corn, and diced quince paste (aka membrillo), but too much of the last ingredient, which overwhelmed the savory toppings. None of these was a total wreck and all of them presented well and were brimming with good ideas, but it did suggest that Jack’s might be all surface appeal.

The entrées, though, changed everything. They were all dishes that diners would want to come back for, and all priced reasonably to affordably. The house crab cake ($18.75) is an unstructured gold-tinged mass of gently seasoned backfin crabmeat, held together with but a glazing of mustard. Circular squirts on the plate of horseradish aioli add complementary interest, and caramelized onions, peppercorns, and truffle essence make a side of smashed potatoes earthily robust. Vivid, firm asparagus spears lend color.

Stelzenmuller’s favorite tenderloin treatment, a peppery-sweet Guinness bath, results in a tender, full-bodied, and simply satisfying piece of gorgeous steak ($19.50), which comes with sides similar to the crab cake above. A pretty black and white sesame-encrusted loin of ahi tuna ($19.25) is finished with a delectably syrupy soy-ginger sauce and potatoes laced with just enough wasabi. A green-curry chicken plate ($16) uses strips of chicken breast, and although the sauce feels more laid on than integral to the dish, the flavors are rich and rounded, and the basmati-rice arancino and fluffy bean sprouts make this dinner substantial and interesting.

Winning ideas flourish here. Jack’s considers vegetarians with a lentil dal entrée and a meatless bento box (which, unfortunately, includes no protein). The bar remains smoke-free until the last diner leaves the dining room, the kitchen serves bar fare until 1 a.m., and the bar resumes a daily happy hour from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m.

Whatever happened to Richard Kline?:

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