Jams was THE place in its hey-day, back in the '80's, introducing California cuisine to the New York dining scene as a novel genre, celebrating market-fresh ingredients and lighter, breezier cooking techniques. Although Jams closed before the nineties began, Chef Jonathan Waxman never faded from the scene, cooking in or consulting for twenty some-odd restaurants and fathering the ever-popular Barbuto in the West Village. Perhaps on the coattails of its success, and a bit of nostalgia for the good old times, he resurrected Jams, this time in midtown occupying the ground level of 1 Central Park Hotel. While in the eighties, the idea of cooking on a wood-fired grill, minimalist preparations of organic, seasonal ingredients and celebratory vegetables was enough to draw crowds, today it is basically a given. So while the bar of expectations is a much higher today for type of food, the seasoning and innovations of the menu seems somewhat tamped to placate its midtown clientele.
That said, there is still a pleasant meal to be had at Jams... but it might take you awhile to get through it. Service is a bit lackadaisical, and not particularly engaging even when you have their attention. The menu is of standard format- there are few, if any, quirks that need explaining. No real surprises in most of the dishes, either; the cooking here is rather straightforward. A chilled corn soup with charred scallions was creamy and smoky, a nice late summer starter. A kale salad could've held up pretty much any time of year, but the heirloom tomato with cucumber and melon certainly spoke of the bounties of August's
market. Peter's Point (MA) oysters were served a half-dozen, on the half shell, but almost double too much money, at $21. They were good for the time of year, although notably briny. For a restaurant priding themselves on market seasonality, the Starters seemed a little heavy, and lacking in vegetable/vegetarian options, so I took an offering from the side dishes, a whole roast tomato. It was flavored like pizza with garlic, fennel and oregano, and baked 'til it succumbed to the ovens heat, releasing its plentiful juices that would've been wonderful soaked up by some slice of a chewy loaf, but continuing in true California-style
(365 days a year bikini-season) no bread was offered, nor do recall any for purchase on the menu, so most of those fragrant drippings remained in the bottom of the bowl. Snackier options consist
of small bowls of nuts ($7) or olives ($6), or a cheesy toast with tomatoes and herbs.
The one pasta we tried was basically the white clam sauce classic, snazzed up with spicy breadcrumbs whose spice really of infiltrated the whole dish, making for quite a piquant little plate of noodles. Clams were small but numberous, impeccably fresh and plump. Gnocchi with corn and tomato, a seafood risotto and a hearty gemelli with braised pork shoulder joined its ranks.
The menu included five options for main courses, plus an evening's special pork chop served with lightly braised, leafy kale and spiced, charred carrots. The kale was a little sour eaten on its own, but cut up in little bites to pair with the robust pork it made a nice condiment-type accompaniment. Olive oil poached cod shared the plate with whole, miniature patty pan squash and slices of grilled eggplant. The cod, too, might've worked better had it been thrown on the grill as well, the delicacy and softness achieved by this method of cooking less complimentary to the hearty smear of rugged romesco, with its chunky bits of almond, and abundant smattering of intense olives with which it was served. It would've been better off with less aggressive bedfellows, or else grilled along with them to attain more continuity.
And again, without any bread, I used the
remaining romesco to pep up a rather lackluster side dish of fairly un-garlicky garlic sauteed green beans.
The best part of the meal came to close it out, which is always nice- ending on a high note. And I actually thought that virtuoso would be the peach and blackberry cobbler, with is oaty, buttery crust, but in the end, the stage-stealer was a moist, juice-steeped blackberry upside down cake with sweet corn ice cream. Its ice cream could've been more intensely corny, but it was enhanced by the golden polenta cake, stained with the inky juices of the berries like sticky fingers after a day of picking. The coffee that I got with it was just as outstanding, a rare occasion where the lack of caffeine seemed to be made up for by the depth of flavor. After such a successful dish, I wondered had I ordered better, like going for that signature roasted chicken he made so famous here, and lives on at Barbuto, perhaps I could've experienced a more satisfying Jams. Those who have fond recollections of the original might benefit from the nostalgia they could to apply to this new version, but more likely Jams will thrive on hotel guests, the restaurant desert of the area, and midtown foot-traffic familiar with Waxman's celebrity. And they won't be disappointed, but a native might find themselves a lot happier heading downtown where his talent never needed reintroduction.
1414 Avenue of the Americas tel. 212.703.2007