My friends have three young girls, and they don't get out much. But when they do, they like to brag. So, what would they say about our dinner at Jake's Restaurant in Manayunk?
"We go to Jake's," boasted the girls' mother in her best version of Ivana Trump nonchalance, "for the mashed potatoes." Before you jump to the conclusion that these friends really don't get out enough (mashed spuds, after all, are everywhere), let me illuminate our potato nirvana. For starters, we spooned into silky Yukon golds, mashed with Lancaster County buttermilk and niblets of roasted corn, a veritable country cloud beneath a crisp breast of moist chicken.
And then came the lobster mashed, a fluffy pedestal for medallions of tender veal, ringed with the brilliant green of pureed chive. Trendy? Yes. But this was no skimpy gimmick, where the chef just whispered "lobster" and sent it out. This satiny pink puree melted the coast of Maine onto my palate, infused every taste bud with the richness of cream slow-steeped with lobster shells. Then, like a vision fulfilled, a long tail of white meat unfurled from the pile on the end of my fork, lobster sweet and tender.
It's no shock that more than a few customers at Jake's refer to this dish as "sex on a plate." And it's hardly much of an exaggeration when something so mundane is elevated to the sublime.
But in the mercurial and fickle world of fine dining, you need more than the seductive power of mashed potatoes for longevity. And Jake's owner and chef, Bruce Cooper, who helped pioneer Manayunk's fine-dining scene, has discovered some of the most elusive ingredients a stylish culinary vision, a fix on top-quality products and a kitchen as consistent as a Swiss watch.
After more than a decade, Jake's has obviously struck an enduring chord. With an eclectic menu that runs the gamut from homey comfort (grilled calves'liver) to Asian sleek (seared tuna with sticky rice), food comes wrapped in artful presentations and crystalline flavors that surprise, but always make sense. As Cooper prepares to launch another, more casual restaurant, one can only hope his flagship endeavor will remain as strong as it was during our recent visits.
The 65-seat dining room, with its undulating-backed cushy banquettes and low vaulted ceiling of acoustical metal mesh, has a vibrant energy about it,accentuated by walls striped with panels of pulsing yellow. There is a stylish clientele to match, wearing designer glasses and good tans, slinky dresses and an un-stuffy air that finds more than a few men wearing ponytails with their cell phones.
One can sink a tad too low in the banquettes for dining comfort; there's nothing quite so awkward as eating from a chest-high plate. But it didn't seem to bother one courting couple, who, in the throes of passionate mauling on the side banquette, only reluctantly took a hint from their server, who placed the entree on the opposite side of the table before the gentleman's unoccupied chair.
The servers really could be warmer, but their professional skill cannot be ignored, down to the bow-tied busboys snapping napkins into crisp fans as they reset the tables. Sometimes, though, they were a bit too efficient, as on one Saturday evening when we looked up from our unfinished appetizers to find hot entrees waiting tableside.
A meal at Jake's is hardly one I'd want to rush. From salads that rise in graceful, leafy piles toward the ceiling to the rich dessert custard of chocolate pot de creme, these flavors are to be savored.
Refined renditions of comfort-food favorites give this sophisticated menu a smidgen of folksy appeal, with crisp roast chicken, grilled veal meat loaf and calves' liver that seemed to disappear from every ordered plate.
But it is an Asian influence that informs many of the best flavors here, from fine veal dumplings in a shiny dark glaze of caramelized ginger to bundled spring rolls tied like a package with string of chive. The scanty filling of good duck confit was more than compensated for by their perfect crispness, and technicolor dots of blackberry, mustard and mandarin orange sauces.
Tuna was a recurring star, seared oh-so-slightly with pink peppercorns and wasabi as an appetizer, or paired in an entree with a marvelous mango shrimp curry and yellow sticky rice infused with anise and sweet coconut milk. It was an exotic spicing so moving that our courting neighbor practically leaped over his sticky rice to rejoin his date in a passionate embrace on the banquette, where they fed each other side-by-side.
Back at our PG13-rated table, we were thrilled to see what a disk of grilled mango could do for buttery foie gras, a surprising sweet burst of gingery yellow fruit, layered with salty Smithfield ham and a rich zinfandel sauce. The final note to a perfect composition.
Barbecued salmon is one of the restaurant's signature staples, marinated in a simple, tangy teriyaki of soy and apple vinegar, then grilled rare and irresistible. Crisply seared sea bass was also great, a seasonal showpiece with a light tomato fennel sauce, a ragout of summer beans and sauteed chanterelle mushrooms.
Whole oyster mushrooms, grilled in large, elegant clusters, added a memorable smoky crunch to the soft herby chew of goat-cheese gnocchi. An assortment of other more strongly smoked mushrooms lent new interest to grilled fillet of beef which, like Cooper's other meat dishes, garnered attention for its columnlike rise on the plate. The earthy-flavored venison, for example, fanned in a ring above a mound of mustardy potato salad, prompted one passerby to actually come over and ogle our dish.
If any disappointed, it was because they were merely good. The equally vertical loin of lamb could have been more tender. The tempura-crisp crabcakes had more bread crumbs than I expected. And the delicate stack of softshell crabs was less crunchy than I prefer, though still bursting with good flavors over cool corn salsa brushed with the herby anise of tarragon. A cold watercress and sorrel soup had too much cream and none of the tart, peppery flavors of the greens. And the lobster tails were fine, but less interesting and more expensive than other appetizers.
The gorgeous desserts of pastry chef Debbie Tonsey were mostly up to the savory menu, with excellent homemade ice creams, from pure coffee to macadamia nut brittle, at the heart of their success. A giant cappuccino cup of pot de creme was filled with a chocolate custard so rich it couldn't even be likened to pudding.
My profiterole expert, however, was disappointed at the absence of chocolate sauce; I was more disappointed by the soggy choux-pastry shells. And a classic creme brulee would have been improved had the thick caramel crust been more delicate.
The restaurant's signature cookie taco, a deep-fried, cinnamon sugar-coated flour tortilla filled with ice cream, fresh berries and curls of white chocolate, had easy claim to first place in the dessert derby. But when a taco was taken to our now-necking neighbors on the side banquette a special-occasion candle burning in this colorful confection like a ticking tortilla time bomb of ice cream and berries we all ducked for fear they might explode.
With customers like that, who needs "sex on a plate"?
Well, me for one. And I get out enough to know that ethereal mashed potatoes and a restaurant with the rare consistency of Jake's make for first-rate bragging material. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.