When Ted Stelzenmuller opened Jack’s Bistro (3123 Elliott St.,  878-6542, jacksbistro.net) in 2007, novelty and innovation were its buzzwords. This was the restaurant that effectively introduced sous vide cooking to Baltimore (the restaurant’s website still makes the boast “Baltimore’s first sous vide restaurant!”), challenged diners to consider chocolate as an appropriate garnish to mac and cheese, and incorporated the unexpected—say, Pop Rocks—into appetizers. Eight years later, innovation survives at Jack’s, but it’s been tempered with a good dose of comfort.
This is not at all a bad thing. Free of pretensions, Jack’s has evolved from a foodie haunt to a neighborhood go-to joint. Locals amble in, post-workout, and grab a coveted booth, still wearing full Under Armour gear. Staff greet familiar faces by name and occasionally with a hug. A neighbor and her visiting sister request a table by the open front door so they can settle in and absorb the active street scene in between their catching up. This could all feel clubby or clannish, especially in such a compact space, but even those farther afield from Canton are welcomed into the fold with enthusiastic, but gentle, menu recommendations and an explanation that the main menu is where successful specials go to live.
Some of those favorites on the main menu are hard to beat. The hickory-smoked whole tomato ($6.50) still feels novel with its mix of unexpected textures and flavors. The sprinkle of crispy dried corn powder and salty, warm fried feta create a pleasing contrast to the dusky, cool, and squishy flesh of the tomato that actually tastes like a tomato, even several months before the start of the season. Likewise, the sea bass ($35), dotted with nuggets of fresh crab and resting on a confetti of peas, carrots, and potatoes, has the mind and the tongue racing to identify flavors in the bright sauce. Is it lemon and tarragon? Maybe thyme, with a little mustard. Maybe it’s the onset of warm weather, but each bite of fish and vegetable tastes of spring.
Time, however, has made other standbys come across as a little tired, albeit well executed. The addition of truffle oil to the excellent fries that accompany the teres major on the steak frites platter ($24) just feels dated rather than classic. I wonder, too, if the novelty of chocolate mac and cheese ($8.75) has worn off. It’s weird and lovely, but ultimately, one bite is enough to satisfy the curiosity.
Wide-ranging global influences have consistently showed up on Jack’s menu, from Moroccan chicken served over Israeli couscous to the intensely fragrant vegetarian yellow curry, Bodhi dal. When both dishes turn up at the table next to us, we simply pause, inhale, and make a mental note for next time. Though these two entrees are on the main menu, the specials reflect this continued interest in food from all over. Special appetizers include steamed bok choy, grilled beef wrapped in bamboo leaf, and a light-as-air, crispy Korean pancake ($8) studded with chunks of pork and finished with a sprinkle of cilantro and sliced jalapeño.
Kowloon chicken and noodles ($18.75) comes with a chatty explanatory note advising that smoking and brining causes the chicken to taste more like ham. “We absolutely love it, but it is recommended for the more adventurous palate,” the menu reads. The dish is absolutely approachable, a savory amalgam of mushroom, soy, garlic, and bok choy, but the admonition is correct: The meat is totally transformed, and it doesn’t taste like chicken.
Dessert options are limited—a slice of vanilla cheesecake, a creme brulee made with durian fruit, a re-interpretation of s’mores ($8) that reads more as a sophisticated take on the old-fashioned, packaged marshmallow pinwheel cookies than the rustic campfire cookie sandwich. Jack’s also continues to have a strong cocktail program with drinks as potentially as colorful as their names. A Gin Jam boasts Dorothy Parker gin, raspberry preserves, lemon, and lavender, while the Last Word is all dressed up for Christmas in green chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, lime, and Barr Hill raw honey gin. Complementing the cocktails is an adequate wine list, and a small but intriguing draft selection which, on this visit, included ASR Helles lightly smoked lager and Liefmans’ Oud Bruin Flemish sour ale.
Jack’s looks and feels like a corner pub—except the burger is made from pork belly and the fries can be potato or eggplant. It’s a clever conceit that somehow feels natural. It also makes you want to live closer to be part of the neighborhood. Is eight years too young to be called an institution?
Jack’s Bistro is open Wednesday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. and Sunday 5-10 p.m.