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If you’ve been living overseas, a quick trip to Jackie Greenbaum and Patrick Higgins’ new Silver Spring restaurant, Jackie’s, offers a decent thumbnail of prevailing trends—the dining-out equivalent of a brisk walk up Madison Avenue to check out the length of the hemlines.
Take the space itself, a nifty bit of adaptive reuse; in a former life, it was a NAPA auto-parts store. It’s also an alternative to the cookie-cutter commercialism that continues apace a few streets to the north. The result is a set piece of industrial chic, all exposed brickwork and beams and light bulbs. The décor evokes a reality-show version of the demimonde haunts of London’s Soho, with its twirling day-glo mobiles, garish pillows, and bright fabrics. And, of course, an open kitchen faces the dining room; narrow and utilitarian, it reminds you of a short-order kitchen and hints at the cooking to come, a sometimes seamless, sometimes uneasy, mix of hipster and diner.
Higgins once tended bar at Cashion’s Eat Place, and he cultivated a rapport not only with his customers, but also with his chef and co-workers. Ann Cashion agreed to design the menu at Jackie’s, and Sam Adkins, one of her cooks, came aboard to execute it. Those high-profile hires, coupled with an ambitious renovation project along Georgia Avenue, had some thinking that Jackie’s would be a kind of Cashion’s 2.0.
At this point, those hopes are a bit premature, if not ill-founded—for one thing, Cashion’s is fine dining. Service at Jackie’s has ranged from good to indifferent: One night, I watched as the chef departed his post in the kitchen to greet a couple of friends, my dish unfinished (and getting cold) until he returned several minutes later. Another, my party stood for several minutes at the door before Jackie herself rose from the bar in her knee-high boots and ambled over to assist us. Welcomes remain a work in progress: “What can I do for you?” asked the hostess on a recent Sunday night.
Wiftiness gives way to warmth and wit on the menu, particularly in the starters. I’m generally opposed to turning what ought to be a messy, juicy experience into a conversation piece, but the Elvis Burgers—miniature burgers slathered with pimento cheese—are good and addictive. A smoked rockfish served with egg, mustard, and bread is the sort of reimagined pub food—simple, soul-satisfying, and light—that places like Jackie’s should make a staple of their kitchens. The most ambitious of the starters are the mussels, which aren’t steamed, but pinched from their shells, swaddled in delicate strands of phyllo, and dunked in the deep fryer. They resemble a plate of shredded-wheat nuggets but encompass a sound idea: juxtaposing the mealy softness of mussels with the audible crunch of phyllo.
Given such whimsy, the nachos must be a joke: a nest of chips, topped with a smear of black beans and blanketed in orangey-yellow cheese, the whole thing blistered from baking. I get it, I thought, It’s supposed to resemble the efforts of a couch potato who can’t cook. They’re playing with our notions of homeyness! But the thought was more satisfying than picking through that cheesy mess. A plate of grilled calamari, shrimp, and a single scallop seems curiously underthought (the green romesco seems cribbed from another dish), as does a calamari “pasta,” wherein the tentacles serve as noodles—a bit of cleverness that can’t make up for the oomphless olive-caper-tomato sauce.
As happens at a lot of places nowadays, the challenge for the first-timer is to figure out how to navigate the menu (all those small plates!) and maximize his fun. It’s best, probably, to build around a few starters, supplementing your order with the wonderful Camembert salad (with three large hunks of the creamy cheese and field greens that are unexpectedly fresh, given the season). Try one of the “nostalgia plates,” the specials that run nightly from Tuesday to Saturday, including a crispy pan-fried chicken, tender beef brisket and latkes, and, best of all, a braised pork shoulder set atop a pool of delectable collard gravy, made by emulsifying the greens in chicken stock and tomato.
If only the rest of the entrees, many of which are priced in the high teens, were as satisfying. Rockfish is moist from its protective salt crust, but the filet needs a few shakes of, yep, salt to get the flavors going, and the parsleyed potatoes are oddly flavorless. The lightly grilled cod is nicely cooked, but its celery-and-onion salad, though supplying a needed bit of crunch, underscores the blahness of the conception. The flatiron steak is tender, if liverish, but it calls for a intense wine reduction, not a shallot-butter compound.
Desserts are a summation not just of the meal, but also of the restaurant itself. A slab of Neapolitan ice cream slid between two halves of salty waffle is cute; the mocha-ice-cream float (the soda poured tableside) is pure nostalgia. However, it’s puzzling that all six desserts are ice-cream-based—and it’s even more puzzling that, with the exception of the Neapolitan, the ice cream is second-rate.
I like Jackie’s. I want to like it more. And I would, if I didn’t suspect that, as in some trippy boho romance, the air of arty cool were meant to distract from some legitimate problems.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.