Jerry's Bar: Shot-and-a-beer hangout turn fine gastropub
Just one block away, Northern Liberties was raging in all-out party mode, as young rock bands wailed to the crowds on Second Street and throngs of bargain shoppers swarmed the Piazza at Schmidt's edition of the Brooklyn Flea.
Inside Jerry's Bar nearby, at the corner of West Laurel and New Market Streets, meanwhile, the tranquil weekend brunch mood felt a world apart. A live guitar duo sent silky jazz standards into the gorgeously rebuilt bi-level space, its glowing white marble bar and dime-store tile floor trimmed with reclaimed wood doors sprouting craft beer taps. Diners forked into tawny brown pancakes striped with blueberry compote. Fluffy golden omelets came rolled around sweet, seasonal corn and house-smoked bacon.
"Did you try the homemade scrapple?" I asked my kids, urging them to break off a crispy chunk of the mysterious brown loaf, its cornmeal porridge infused with the piggy richness of shredded meat and pork stock. (They did, then fought me for the rest.) "Did you try the gravlax?" I asked, unfolding a translucent orange sheet of fennel-cured fish and draping it with the ripest slice of beefsteak tomato I'd seen this summer over a bagel with capers and cream cheese.
Slurrrp, went my straw, hitting briny bottom on my Bloody Jerry cocktail just as the guitar duo launched into a meandering riff on "Blackbird." Sigh. Do we have to leave into the blaring street-fair scrum?
A few years ago, this corner bar would have presented quite the contrast to surging Northern Liberties in an entirely different way. The original Jerry's was a declining relic in the shadow of neighborhood gentrification, an old-school corner tappie with shuffleboard, darts, and a $2.50 whiskey shot-and-beer special.
But this Jerry's, completely rebuilt and transformed by new owner, contractor, and neighbor Bill Proud, has set itself apart with a tone of handsome sophistication that's a welcome reply to the hipster honky-tonk that has evolved from the Piazza's promise.
Proud, a masonry pro specializing in historical renovations, completely reimagined this corner bar along with his daughter, Christie, and her husband, interior designer Ryan Bernstein. Stripping its stucco shell and interior to studs, they restored two attached trinity rowhomes down to matching brick and added a kitchen at the rear of an adjacent vacant lot - the front of which is now a sleek, gray patio gated off with tall paned windows salvaged from a lamp factory at Front and Oxford.
Despite the fact that this Jerry's is essentially a fresh creation of his salvage yard, Proud, whose blue-collar outlook is rooted in vivid childhood memories of shining shoes for 25 cents in the bars of Tacony, has insisted on a dose of affordability and authenticity at his local place.
To his chef, Marshall Green, that came in a mandate of three required menu items: pierogies, a great burger, and a sliced-meat dip sandwich.
Green has obliged with a trio of first-rate quality. The pan-fried pierogies, made from hand-rolled sour cream dough and stuffed with onions and mashed potatoes, compete with the best of Port Richmond. The burger of briskety LaFrieda beef with caramelized onions and Cabot cloth-bound cheddar is outstanding. The French dip, sliced from herb-roasted Angus top round, is deeply flavorful and tender on a crusty Baker Street baguette with Gruyère cheese.
The onetime brunch specialist who owned Cafe Estelle, Green has deftly carried that course to Jerry's weekends, too, with his talent for house-smoked bacon, French toast stuffed with a secret compartment of peach-sweetened cream cheese, and what I still consider the best dairy-rich pancakes in town.
But Jerry's menu is also an opportunity for Green, who also worked at Django, Ansill, and Meritage, to remind us of some other moves. Many of them are simply bistro classics rendered with attention to detail, like the soulfully rich French onion soup gratineed beneath a molten Gruyère lid, or a steel crock of oregano-scented meatballs in bright tomato ragu. Tender snails come with an inspired summer touch of Pernod, corn, and sweet crab, which adds an unexpectedly pleasant aquatic edge. Pureed corn soup gets a brilliant, boozy echo from a shot of bourbon corn liquor. Plump chicken wings rise above bar cliche with a distinct pickle brine and a sambal chili glaze with satay peanut dip I'm craving.
A pork chop Milanese, its breading crisped in clarified butter and scattered with capers, is an entree bargain for $16. But then, so is the "chicken & bowties," a juicy, roasted breast over a brothy bowl of hand-made farfalle tossed with braised leg meat and truffle butter, also for $16. For $19, there are few better steaks in the city than Jerry's 9-ounce Creekstone hanger with classic red wine bordelaise.
When Green dabbles with more expensive specials, like the Painted Hills strip steak for $27, it's usually worth it. Marinated in barbecue spice, smoked over mesquite, then finished to a crusty sear on the plancha, this was the most flavorful, memorable steak I ate all summer.
The same cannot be said for the disappointing lobster fra diavolo, which for $25 was noticeably missing much lobster and contained a few questionable mussels. As if to round out a completely off night for seafood, the smoked fish in the trout salad was dry, and the roasted whole trout almondine was simply a bland bore. The falafel was all crunch, no fluff, and overwhelmed by its salad.
The kitchen made sweet amends at that final dinner with an almond milk rice pudding that should please vegans and pudding fans alike. And whatever misgivings I had about calling the wrong-shaped beignet balls "churros" were blown away by the melting interiors of those sugar-dusted choux-pastry fritters.
The desserts softened the blow of those slips. And though they were not insignificant, they couldn't take away entirely from what overall struck me as the best new gastropub I've visited this year.
The service staff is friendly and outgoing. The bar program has the now-usual substantial lineup of fine craft beers (a dozen drafts and 18 excellent bottles and cans). But Jerry's also has a smart wine list focused on bistro-friendly Euro varieties (Chinon; verdejo; malvasia; Franche-Comte pinot). The classic cocktails, from the daiquiri to the French martini, were spot-on. I only wish Jerry's had a deeper bench of good brown whiskies.
As a former old-man bar, the quest for a spirit of authenticity demands it - especially as this former relic transforms most gracefully into an impressive vision of what Northern Liberties can still be.
Chef Marshall Green and owner Bill Proud discuss Jerry's Bar at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Pass in Rosemont, N.J. Contact him on Twitter: @CraigLaBan or email@example.com.