The Blue Jake's
The ability of a restaurant to surprise with hitherto unseen and unheard of concepts is becoming increasingly difficult these days, yet Jake's Bar & Grill, a new eatery located across from the Shops at Sunset Place, recently succeeded in doing just that. While waiting for a table at a large mahogany bar that dominates the center of the room, I ordered a drink "on the rocks." Nothing out of the ordinary there. Then came the check, with a notation I had never before come across: "Rocks, $1.00." I did what I believe any reasonable person would: double-checked the tab to see that they weren't also charging me a rental fee on the glass.
Selling ice is, unfortunately, the only original idea that Jake's has managed to come up with. Chef Michael Macfarlane's menu is described as "creative American with international flair," yet a noteworthy noncreativeness stirs with the starters (crabcakes, spring rolls, nachos, fried calamari, chicken wings), streaks through the salads (Cobb, caesar, niçoise, grilled shrimp with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes), weaves its way into main courses (we'll get to these soon enough), and sweeps across desserts (key lime pie, chocolate bombe, crème brélée, cheesecake with raspberry coulis).
Even the dining room is unoriginal, looking pretty much the same as when it belonged to the previous tenant, SouthSide Café. This isn't a bad thing -- the space is clean, handsome, and comfortable with woods and warm colors upon woods and warm colors. The backroom, formerly a bakery and pantry, now contains a wood-burning brick oven that churns out crisply charred pizza crusts covered with Puckish toppings (Macfarlane worked with Wolfgang Puck in opening Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafés): smoked salmon with crème fraîche and chives; prosciutto with arugula; portobello with goat cheese and truffle oil; and sausage with roasted peppers and fontina cheese. The last was a passable pie.
Passable describes much of the fare. Like a bastardized little Puck Café menu (which itself is a bastardized little Cheesecake Factory), the ten appetizers, ten entrées, salads, burgers, pizzas and sandwiches globetrot from Mexico to New Mexico, Mongolia to the Middle East, and across Italy and France, while always keeping one foot firmly entrenched in safe American soil. In other words: Jake of all nations, master of none.
Fresh focaccia and savory Parmesan crisps thick enough to be called "Parmesan matzos" started things off in a promising manner. An appetizer of mussels roasted in the wood-burning oven kept the goodwill flowing, the mollusks plump, briny, and gracefully braced with sea salt and lemon. My only complaint would be the parsimonious number served: ten. Fried calamari were crisply and spicily coated and paired with a pleasantly piquant anchovy aioli, but duck-filled spring rolls were oily, a sweet-and-spicy sauce on the side tasting like commercial duck sauce liberally spiked with chilies.
Entrées were inconsistent. Grilled "Mongolian" Atlantic salmon was excellent, consummately cooked to translucent pinkness and brushed with an appropriately sweet citrus-ginger glaze. Steamed brown rice was a smart starch choice but lacked seasoning; accompanying asparagus, mushrooms, bok choy, and carrots were freshly stir-fried in unfathomably flavorless fashion.
No such shortage of punch on the next plate, as a lemon-pepper crust and pool of rich veal demi-glace powered two thick wedges of "baseball cut" yellowfin tuna. The fish interiors were raw as ordered, but one of the pieces was tough as rawhide and seemingly stitched together with silver gristle. Whipped chive potatoes on the side were decent, as were steamed haricots vert, though the latter were marred by a bitter roasted shallot dressing far too potent for such dainty beans.
A hefty twenty-ounce rib-eye tasted fine with an assertive chili and spice rub, but, like new paint on a Hyundai, the seasonings merely coated a mediocre cut of meat. Sharing the plate were cayenne-dusted "ribbon" onion rings (meaning of the thin, limp, and, in this case, greasy variety), and a listless corn relish that wasn't ample enough to substitute for a vegetable.
Jake's nightly special was equally uninspiring: barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes, vinegar-based coleslaw, and the same greasy ribbon rings. The half-bird was moist, the sauce sweet and smoky, but in general a lackluster dinner. The most appealing aspects of the dish were its price ($11.95) and a preceding caesar salad with whole romaine leaves in robust lemony dressing.
Other main courses come with salad and sides as well, and run a reasonable $15.95 to $23.95. Weekly specials include Monday's grilled one-and-a-half-pound spiny Florida lobster for $14.99, and Thursday's sixteen-ounce T-bone steak for $13.99. A limited children's menu offers main courses for under five dollars -- not difficult to see why this place appeals to families.
Jake's has been operating for barely a month, not really enough time for a service staff to polish their performance. Still, the degree of haphazard inefficiency was fairly shocking -- even more so when you consider that one of the owners is Patrick Gleber, proprietor of the ever-competently run Fishbone Grill and Tobacco Road. Service was so chaotic it took my companion some time to convince me that the wait team was in all likelihood not made up solely of former Palm Beach County elections board officials. They were a friendly group (we were served by so many of them during our two visits that I figure we got to know much of the staff) but did nearly everything wrong. Waiters carried dishes to the table with no idea of where to place them, and, worse, they habitually arrived with food while prior courses were still being worked on. Soup of the day wasn't mentioned before either meal, the nightly special enunciated just one of the times. There was an incorrect dressing brought with salad, a wine glass removed with sips still sitting within, and long waits for water refills, clearing of plates, and the bill.
It wasn't just the waiters who floundered; the whole front-of-house team was clearly unable to cope with weekend throngs of night-time shoppers and moviegoers filing into the 200-seat restaurant. They seemed especially confused when it came to seating, as both of our visits began with us being steered toward the bar to wait for tables that were obviously available (reservations for less than six aren't taken, and there were numerous empty tables for four). I attribute this to confusion because it truly did appear, on both occasions, that our time spent at the bar was caused by a lack of staff communication concerning which tables were for whom and not owing to any preconceived plan to entice us into purchasing drinks. On the other hand, ice does yield a considerably high profit margin.
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