A pair at Jack?s: Kerschbaumer, left, and Guler can?t beat the house.
A pair at Jack?s: Kerschbaumer, left, and Guler can?t beat the house. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

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The menu at Jack’s Restaurant and Bar lists “St. Louis barbecued baby back ribs,” which catches my attention for all the wrong reasons. St. Louisnstyle ribs, I think, are trimmed spare ribs, not back ribs. Sure enough, the plate that lands on the table carries a half-rack of smoky spare ribs. The problems, as it turns out, are just beginning.

The ribs are placed in the center of the plate, next to a mixed-greens salad and a bowl of barbecue sauce. As I try to saw between the bones to dislodge a rib, I’m knocking dressed salad leaves onto the table and creating tiny tidal waves of sauce that spill out over the edges of the bowl. My messy efforts carry no reward: The rib is a gristle pit. I have to rip the meat from the bone with my teeth, caveman-style. Worse, one rib has two tentacles protruding from the bone. They look like snail feelers.

Feigning fullness, I ask the waiter to box up the ribs to go. Three days later, I take the remaining rack to the Union Meat Co. inside Eastern Market, where owner Bill Glasgow examines my cold, dehydrated specimen. His verdict: poor trim job on the St. Louisnstyle spare ribs. Those two tentacles of cartilage should have been lopped off with the rest of the rib tips, he says.

That so many troubles should beset a single dish is disturbing enough. That it should happen at Jack’s—the casual European and American outpost that replaced the ill-fated Le Pigalle on 17th Street NW—is mind-boggling. If any restaurant in recent memory serves as a cautionary tale, it is Le Pigalle, the here-today, gone-tomorrow French eatery that drowned in its own red ink, the result of a questionable business strategy and a pricy, pedestrian bistro menu that attracted few fans.

Swiss-born chef Herbert Kerschbaumer, an associate of former Pigalle investor Latif Guler, was there to pick up the pieces when general manager George Gozen and chef David Barigault’s fragile French operation finally shattered in late 2006. As such, Kerschbaumer had an insider’s view of the old restaurant’s kitchen and finances. He wasn’t impressed.

When I ask Kerschbaumer to explain how Pigalle could have fallen so quickly—admittedly, during a tense interview about the dead restaurant’s history—he has a ready answer. “Overpriced and terrible food,” he says. “Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible food.”

Even if you believe Kerschbaumer’s exaggerating—and Gozen and Barigault, the Bistrot du Coin vets, are quick to say he is—you’d think the new chef would have absorbed the lessons of Le Pigalle deep into his bones. He apparently hasn’t. His menu is a minefield of latent dangers, which can be triggered by any number of things, from an inferior (or missing) ingredient to sloppy execution in the kitchen to poor plating. Or all of them at once, as evidenced by the spare ribs above.

The thin strips of grilled flank steak, draped over a generous pile of ratatouille, look absolutely mouthwatering, red in the center and browned along the edges. One forkful, however, ruins the visual fantasy. The chewy, underseasoned meat shifts the focus to your jaws, which are forced to work like pistons. The only way I can enjoy the entree is to turn it into a game. I start counting my chews. One mouthful requires more than 90 before I can choke it down.

The flank steak’s tangy ratatouille turns out to be the Paris Hilton of Jack’s: It’s overexposed. The veggie medley also underpins a standard-issue stuffed chicken breast and a dull duck dish, and it even seems to make a watery appearance as the vegetable-heavy broth in a seafood stew. I wish it made a better partner for Kerschbaumer’s dishes.

From my best assessment of the situation, the ratatouille is also the de facto “dressing” for the Maple Leaf Farms duck confit, which has nary a trace of the advertised tarragon sauce. Perhaps the sauce wouldn’t matter as much if the bird were better prepared. Rich, rendered fat is what you want, but the fat in Kerschbaumer’s duck confit remains firmly attached to the leg and breast meat, leaving it both dry and tasteless.

Tarragon is not the only AWOL ingredient. If there’s a scallop in the house at Jack’s, it doesn’t deign to show up for its billed appearance in my seafood stew. Tuna instead dominates the dish—chewy, overcooked tuna that’s the color (and practically the consistency) of old gray flannel. Well, old gray flannel covered in a sort of tangy, veggie-heavy ratatouille broth. The kitchen also overcooks Jack’s eponymous burger, a thick patty in desperate need of seasoning.

So does the shadow of Le Pigalle hang over every dish? Not quite. The fleshy little Prince Edward mussels, cooked in white wine and Pernod, release a heady fragrance of sweet ripe grapes and anise, while the fried calamari prove to be tender, lightly breaded ringlets paired with a surprisingly ethereal remoulade sauce. Even the paint-by-numbers dessert menu turns up a relative winner, a flaky apple tart accented with a strawberry coulis. Too bad it tastes more like strawberries than apples.

The few fleeting pleasures here, however, are not enough to rinse out the bad taste in my mouth. Nor do they alter my impression of the latest tenant at this troubled address: Jack’s hasn’t learned jack from Pigalle’s mistakes.

Jack’s Restaurant and Bar, 1527 17th Street NW, (202) 332-6767.

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