A re-warmed brisket sandwich ($15) served with potato chips poured from a bag was the most substantial feed available on a recent afternoon at Jeffrey’s Grocery.
Gabe Stuhlman is king of the area surrounding Sheridan Square known as “Little Wisco,” or at least its mayor. The Madison, Wisconsin, native currently has three restaurants in the near vicinity, including Joseph Leonard (a good restaurant) and Fedora (a very good restaurant), each relatively quaint in its own way and well-targeted at its constituency. Both are thronged during most opening hours, whether it be lunch, dinner, brunch, or late night, and both menus are nicely positioned between adventuresome and comforting.
Who’s got the ball?
The child who lags behind in this harmonious restaurant family, the kid who always threatens to flunk out, is Jeffrey’s Grocery. Located at the corner of Waverly and Christopher, and open since late last year, it began as a small and ambitious bistro that was small mainly because half the floor space was devoted to groceries — an old dream of Stulman’s that also blunted the forward momentum of Market Table when he worked there. It seems that no one wants to buy toilet paper at a fine-dining establishment, and the things someone might want to buy — expensive steaks, fruit, and leafy greens — go bad before you can sell them. Moreover, people tend to buy luxury groceries when they’re hungry, not after they’ve enjoyed a full meal and their appetite is blunted. And what about buying the groceries before you dine? Well, who wants to eat while kicking bags of groceries under the table?
When Lauren Shockey reviewed the place last December, she found the food uneven, but the menu an agreeable mix of clam chowder, duck and smoked trout salads, foie gras terrine, shrimp cocktail, and raw scallops, along with more substantial feeds that included braised lamb shank, a Tuscan-sounding pork chop, and salmon with mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. One of her favorite things was a sandwich of brisket on sourdough topped with cheese and a beet slaw.
This past Monday, in search of lunch, a friend and I dropped in on Jeffrey’s Grocery again. In the interim, amid much hoopla, the grocery shelves and display cases had been removed, ostensibly to increase the seating area. Fine, I could have done without the tea, toilet paper, and boutique-y jams. One would have presumed that, with such an alteration, a proper lunch would be available.
Aside from three slender main courses, a small collection of sandwiches was your only other option.
As it turned out, there was no waiter or bartender service, so we had to approach the cashier for our food and drink. (The “find it yourself” mentality part of the grocery still remains.) A chalkboard lists five kinds of oysters, arranged according to origin on the East or West Coast. I ordered two of each for comparative purposes. “I’m sorry, we only serve oysters after 6 p.m.,” said the counter guy, his lip curling. “I thought the rule was, only the months with an ‘R’ in them,” my good-natured friend quipped.
The balance of the menu consisted of three sparse entrées, ranging in price from $12 to $15, and a display of small desiccated sandwiches on a cutting board at the counter presumably intended to show you what was possible. We went for two of the entrées, and ate them at the bar, where a crew of three was at work with little to do.
The brisket sandwich was similar to the article Lauren had described, only the slices of brisket were warmed with a little water in a skillet before the sandwich was made — which any deli man will tell you is a recipe for disaster. The crunchy beet slaw was still present, but the steaming had turned the brisket soft, and robbed it of its flavor. A so-called curried chicken salad was just a heap of greens, and a lump of finely shredded chicken with no curry flavor — though some micro-pickles secreted therein gave it a pleasant sweet-sour taste. No carbs were offered with the salad, though some sliced bread would have been welcome.
Really, we found it very difficult to put a meal together, and ended up blowing over 50 bucks with a single beer each, at this not-grocery, not-restaurant. This sort of thing would never happen in Wisconsin, believe me.
Offered with no starch of any sort, the curried chicken salad was neither curried nor very filling.