Now in its seventh season, Jack's Bistro has settled into a fine groove. The small Canton restaurant is essentially doing today what it was doing from the start — exactly what it wants to do.
If that makes Jack's sound arrogant, you don't know Jack's.
You won't find a more down-to-earth set of proprietors than the husband-and-wife team behind Jack's Bistro, Ted Stelzenmuller and Christie Smertycha — he's the owner and executive chef; she's the general manager. They're inveterate travelers, lifelong learners and constitutionally nice people.
The staff, many of them longtime employees, are, by all indications, devoted to the restaurant and excited about telling diners about the next new thing coming out of Stelzenmuller's tightly run, consistently performing kitchen.
These days, Jack's is playing largely to an avid fan base, diners from Canton and beyond who found their favorites on Jack's compact and compelling regular menu — a few items that have been there from the start and a few more that have earned their place in permanent rotation.
Among these are a Guinness-braised filet mignon that melts in your mouth; the Bodhi Dal, a curry-based dish with green lentils, zucchini and basmati rice that ranks among the city's best vegetarian dishes; and an Argentine steak served with a marvelous chimichurri sauce and prepared sous-vide. Stelzenmuller gets credit for introducing Baltimore diners to the sous-vide, a high-tech, slow-cooking method using vacuum-sealed bags, and for continuing to experiment with it.
There are newer additions, some inspired by the proprietors' recent travels, like a Malaysian laksa, a sweet and spicy noodle soup filled with shrimp and chicken and spiked with bitter and pungent notes from cilantro and pickled vegetables. It's a complex delight.
It's this serious playfulness that defines the course of Jack's growth. I'll go ahead and call it creativity, which is a powerful force when it's operating.
Creativity is contagious. It's present at the bar, where head bartender Ryan Sparks has issued a ravishing summer cocktail called the Blind Melon, concocted form coriander gin, watermelon juice, Lillet and a dash of serrano-pepper syrup.
And it's on the table from start to finish. On a recent visit, there were sterling appetizers like razor clams, served Hong Kong-style, with rice noodles and crunchy garlic and edamame; a shimmering tartare, flavored with smoked soy sauce and served on an oversized fried wonton; and, best of all, the spicy Somboon (Thai) mussel salad, an elegantly plated arrangement of cold mussels with shallots, mint, lemon grass, red chiles and slices of jalapenos.
The Somboon salad made our eyes water — warnings are issued about the peppers — and it made us very happy. It's the best dish I've had in a restaurant all year. Good news — it's on the regular menu now.
Then there are simple, straightforward achievements like pasta tossed with lamb and plum tomatoes and basil; deceptively simple ones like crispy-skinned roasted pork belly served with grilled broccolini and a carton of shrimp stir-fried rice.
I met a friend here whose date said that there weren't many funky places like Jack's in Washington. Jack's is funky? I guess it might be. To me, it's just a nice old Baltimore tavern space with the walls painted seafoam green.
For me there's no disconnect between the high quality of the food and the casual nature of the dining experience. But I get how someone, having tasted Jack's food, would find Jack's problematic for date-impressing or client-wooing.
For instance, I could see how someone would want red wine served in a traditional red-wine glass. Jack's does use Riedel wine glasses when a diner orders an expensive bottle, but it uses an all-purpose glass for wines by the glass. It seems a small thing, but a vigorous debate over Jack's red-wine glass options dominated our dinner conversation.
We found common ground, though, on the subject of Jack's dessert listings, which tend to be overly complicated — chocolate pancakes with peanut-butter brandy sauce — when you're ready for something very light and simple.
When you like a place, you can even enjoy not liking something — within reason, of course. You can appreciate the thought behind a grilled radicchio appetizer and still think the goat-cheese vinaigrette is too thick and cloying. You're willing to take a hit, because coming right up is rib-eye steak, prepared sous-vide and grilled to finish, topped with truffle butter. It's not the purist's way with a rib-eye, but it pays off.
Rating: Four stars
Where: 3123 Elliott St., Canton
Contact: 410-878-6542, jacksbistro.net
Open: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers $6.50-$12 ; entrees $15.75 -$21
Food: Contemporary cuisine with Asian influences
Service: On point, friendly and extremely supportive of the kitchen's work.
Best dishes: Sous-vide Argentine steak, spicy Somboon-style mussels, Malaysian laksa
Parking: On-street parking
Children: There are no menu items designed specifically for children.
Noise level/television: Loud in the way you'd expect from a small restaurant but not more so. The two televisions in the bar area are set with their sound off.
[Key: Superlative: five stars; Excellent: four stars; Very Good: three stars; Good: two stars; Promising: one star]
Nearby reviews: DishBaltimore.com - Canton/Highlandtown