Downtown, two opposing trends in the restaurant biz are duking it out. One is the tendency to super-size and overdecorate new establishments, creating opulent barns like Matsuri and Spice Market, where patrons are treated like cows to be herded and milked, and the grub is inconsistent at best. In contrast, micro-size places like Casa Mono and Spotted Pig are springing up, cramping diners in hilariously small spaces, but also making them feel like members of an exclusive club. With scarcely less chef firepower, these tiny cafés deliver food of consistently higher quality.
Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar may be the smallest to date. Ensconced in a narrow, 16-foot-wide East Village carriage house, Jack’s is a subsidiary of the diminutive Jewel Bako. A dining room seating 12 shares the second floor with a miniature open kitchen, while the ground floor accommodates 12 or 14, depending on diners’ girth. In addition, these floors harbor waiters, oyster shuckers, a dish runner, a coat taker, meandering owners, and customers perched on bar stools, eagerly waiting to sup. It’s a real estate agent’s wet dream.
So what’s the carrot on the stick? Well, some of the best French food you’re likely to get at any price. Like the premises, the menu is minuscule, and if you go the route of the $75 prix fixe, you’ll be trying nearly everything. A meal at Jack’s begins with an amuse-bouche—a pickled quail egg in a filigreed egg cup sprinkled with chives and black sea salt, or dressed with something else at the whim of chef Allison Vines-Rushing, whose sense of humor and New Orleans upbringing inform every byway of the menu. Next comes a stylish silver rack of pumpernickel toast with a wittily reworked version of that Southern picnic classic, pimento cheese spread.
Jack’s raison d’être arrives next, raw-bar items that include several kinds of oysters, littleneck clams, and scallops on the half-shell, all priced at $2 each, or available in an omnibus plateau de mer. Also within the raw bar’s purview is “barbecued” lobster ($18), a ton of meat cooked just enough so you can’t call it sashimi, served on a crouton with a trickle of dark sauce in emulation of old-guard New Orleans Italian restaurants like Mosca’s. Other equally impressive starters include a wonderfully smooth velouté of sweet Vidalia onions presented as a soup and garnished with pickled rock shrimp ($10) and, in another rethinking of a New Orleans standard, a stylishly deconstructed oysters Rockefeller that elegantly deposits poached oysters on a series of spoons lined with spinach and flavored with licorice powder and crisp pancetta.
I was devastated when the menu changed recently and the wonderful risotto disappeared—I was counting on eating it again. At one time it was the menu’s only entrée, a suckling pig risotto ($32) rife with shreds of tender young piglet and topped with featherweight cracklin’s and black truffle shavings. The new menu substitutes three entrées, including a halibut filet with bourbon sauce, a lamb tenderloin cushioned by lima bean puree, and—in a tour de force rich enough to one-up the risotto—a baby chicken in a cast-iron kettle poised on pucks of pied de cochon ($28), the latter entrée so good that it had me rephrasing Bessie Smith’s famous song as I contorted myself to get out the door: “Give me a pig foot, and a bottle of Bordeaux.”