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EAT AT JACK’S

for The Brooklyn Paper
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If you shop on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope you may have noticed Jack’s, a restaurant that opened in October. And after a quick glance at the menu written on the chalkboard outside, and a peek into the restaurant, you may have asked yourself, "Why here?"

Why choose a spot on Fifth Avenue, sandwiched between rows of bargain centers, with the most upscale neighbors being the Mandee Shop and the Salvation Army?

A restaurant scene exists further down Fifth Avenue, but on Jack’s stretch of the block, dining is mostly takeout: quickie fish-fry joints and cheap Chinese. The location may be improbable for a restaurant with upscale leanings (Seventh Avenue would have been more appropriate), yet Jack’s is being discovered - one satisfied diner at a time.

Mauro Gonzalez, the chef and co-owner of Jack’s, has a simple aim - he wants to cook comfort classics in a setting that makes diners feel at home. He’s not trying to dazzle with innovation or be shockingly avant-garde.

Look elsewhere if you want to be blindfolded and fed soup from a baby bottle. (Yes, it happened during an "event" staged in a Manhattan restaurant recently.) You won’t be served a little amuse bouche or plates of tiny petits fours before you leave - what you will receive are obscenely large portions of well-prepared comfort food. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Gonzalez stays true to American cooking with just enough detours into Mexico and Asia to keep his dishes from seeming overly cliched. Some of his cooking misses the mark: salad dressings can lack acidity and more salt would have brought a few of the dishes into focus. (There are salt and pepper shakers on the tables.) But those are minor quibbles when food is prepared with such care.

The room, all brick on one side and painted in rich colors on the other, is more attractive in the evening when the lights are dimmed and there is candlelight on the tables. During the day, it’s pleasant and bright, but the floor seems too shiny, and the overhead light fixtures, not the most tasteful part of the decor, are noticeable.

Diners seem to enjoy what can best be described as an "anti-scene." Couples come in after work, throw their coats and briefcases down, and they’re ready to eat. Parents with kids in tow, stop to chat with neighbors at nearby tables, and a group of women arrive carrying bottles of wine, and linger long after their desserts are finished, whispering and laughing. (A liquor license is expected by April, until then, there’s no corking fee.)

Little touches like serving house-made focaccia rolls - warm from the oven - make dining at Jack’s pleasurable. The rolls, flavored with rosemary and garlic oil were chewy and delicious.

Appetizers are the hearty Mexican variety that include a shrimp tostada with guacamole and black beans and a rich, sweet potato soup flavored with smoky chipotle pepper. All-American crab cakes were a little heavy on the bread crumb, but had a nicely pronounced crab flavor, and while a special salad of watercress, orange slices, black olives and goat cheese might sound overwrought, it tasted clean and fresh with a nice play of salty, tart and sweet flavors. Jack’s serves six salads that can be ordered in appetizer-size portions or as a main course.

Offering 13 entrees seems overly ambitious for a small kitchen, but Gonzalez and company are up to the task. Meatloaf, a hamburger, fried chicken and pot roast covers the comfort food category. There are also three different kinds of pasta, several fresh fish dishes and a vegetarian plate - in other words, something for everyone. Three couples dining nearby ordered what appeared to be everything on the menu. Plates were passed around and all seemed happy.

Entree portions can be overwhelming. Order the buttermilk fried chicken and a platter-size dish arrives with three crusty, enormous pieces, a mountain of mashed potatoes, a he-man size wedge of not-too-sweet corn bread and a mound of the best collard greens I’ve had. The chicken seamed greaseless (I missed the grease a little) and not too salty. The potatoes were creamy with plenty of garlic - and those collard greens! Gonzalez stews his with tomatoes and they’re tangy and tender.

The meatloaf was on the same grand scale as the chicken and was very tasty, although it was a little too dense and slightly under-seasoned. The accompanying side of corn-scallion potatoes were good, but the corn seemed like one ingredient too many. Mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa, a special that evening, was dull.

Gonzalez’s home-style desserts made a decadent finale to the meal. Pumpkin-ginger pound cake is another name for the world’s best gingerbread - dense, moist and spicy; while the almond flan, delicately flavored with almond and served without the usual caramel sauce, was lighter than most and delightful.

Jack’s is the kind of restaurant every neighborhood should have. It’s not event dining, but the food is familiar and good, the waiter is happy to see you and when you meet your friends there, they’ll offer you a bite of their fried chicken. They’ll have plenty to spare.

 

Jack’s (519 Fifth Ave. at 13th Street in Park Slope) is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, and brunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Entrees: $5.50 to $15. Jack’s accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Diner’s Club. Bring your own wine and beer. For information, call (718) 965-8675.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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