[Ratings modified (increased) and review rewritten early spring 2013] A couple of years ago, owners Mark Hunker and Jeff McCracken cleverly moved the sadly subterranean JAM across the street from their old digs into the bright, amply windowed building that was once home to the storied Camel's Hump restaurant. The attitude, the surroundings -- and the food -- instantly improved. Operations manager (and pastry chef extraordinaire) Danielle Panarello hit the jackpot in the kitchen with Chef Gary Johnson and the recent addition of sous chef Joe Churchman (the original head chef at Luca in Millsboro, now closed).
The menu makes a few respectful nods to Camel's Hump proprietors Marcia and Ritchie Shihadeh and the long-gone restaurant's Middle Eastern bent; none the least of which the Marinated Olive appetizer and the Baba Ghannouj. A mix of green and kalamata olives [pictured, left] are pitted (thank you) and simply presented with a couple of whole garlic cloves and a chopped mix of orange, lemon and herbs in olive oil (a variation on the traditional Mediterranean gremolata). The slightly sweet citrus gets along nicely with the edgy bite of the olives. I SO wanted to drink the leftover spice-infused and oh-so-very-olivey oil, but I'm really trying to play down the fact that I was raised by wolves.
The soup du jour on our most recent visit was Seafood Bisque [pictured, right]. The crab/shrimp base was buttery, creamy and chock full of crabmeat and what appeared to be mussels. It was softly comforting.
I appreciate JAM's attempts at creativity with the Baba Ghannouj. The combination of ingredients might look good in print, but they cancel one another out. I could not taste any tahini (sesame seeds ground into a paste), and the pistachio/mint mix does nothing but work counter to what is supposed to be the charred/roasted flavor of eggplant. Being of Middle Eastern descent (at least half of me), I take these things seriously. Hey guys, how about leaving well-enough alone and doing it the traditional way, with roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon, garlic, salt and maybe a few sprinkles of pomegranite seeds in-season? Please? I really miss the charred, nutty overtones and lemony background of the Baba Ghannouj at D.C.'s Lebanese Taverna.
The House Made Pork Meatballs [pictured, left] are simply delicious. The salty shavings of parmesan kick up the chunky tomato gravy that encircles the tender orbs. I could make a meal out of these (one one visit, my favorite Foodie-in-Waiting ordered two and did just that). Another hit in the appetizer department is the Edamame Guacamole. A little salt makes it all happen with triangles of fried flour tortilla. Simple.
Two entrees are tied for the award of Star of the Show: (1) The Braised Beef Shortribs [pictured, right]. Darkly crusty on the outside and fallin'-off-the-bone, it reminded me of slow-cooked Texas beef brisket that had been spared the obligatory mopping of sauce. It sidled up to a cute stack of bright green Broccolini, lightly blanched and firm. A gastrique of acidy/sweet red wine topped it all off. #2 is the bacon-wrapped meatloaf [pictured right]. The meat is perfectly seasoned and enhanced by the smokey bacon. It's a generous portion and the perfect comfort dish.
I have to tell you about one of JAM's "Variations on the French Fry": the Crispy Smashed Fingerlings [pictured, left] with blue cheese chunks and a tangy buffalo vinaigrette. I'm trying so hard not to gush over these things, lest you think you're reading one of those shiny-magazine "fluff reviews" so prevalent around here. So I'll spare you the hyperbolic superlatives and gently suggest, as politely as I can, that you ORDER THEM! NOW. The potatoes were indeed smashed, but not enough to break the crackly crisp skin.
They are also available with Smoked Bacon and a Vermont Cheddar whiz (love it), but we ordered it to share, and the Kosher proclivities of one of our good friends precluded the bacon. We WILL go back for the trayfe.
Another bow to the former occupant's Arabic menu is the Seared Lamb Kabobs [pictured, right]. I love it when lamb is cooked to a dark crispness on the outside and is slightly north of pink on the inside. These were presented in just that way, but I was disappointed that whomever prepared the cubes had left some of the silver (a tough, striated membrane). Impervious to heat, it makes the meat chewy and tough. That was on one of our first visits, and I genuinely hope that they've taken care of that by now. It's the only thing standing between that dish and success.
The Slow Roasted Pork Chop is tender enough to be cut with a fork. On our most recent visit it was accompanied by Sweet Potato Risotto. This suggests a fall appearance, so I hope they still have it when you go. Sauteed Mustard Greens add tartness and color.
The Pan Roasted Crab Cakes [pictured, right] were ordered (unfortunately for the restaurant) by a Baltimore native who is a crab cake maniac. Though they tasted OK, he noted the absence of lump crabmeat and the unfortunately skewed ratio of crab to filler. They did benefit from the citrus beurre blanc. I thought they were OK, but there are better crab cakes around here.
The Pappardelle Bolognese [pictured, left] was simple, straightforward and delicious. The Bolognese was chunky with meat and vegetables (with the same great red sauce as the meatballs, I think) and the Pappardelle was satisfyingly al dente. The portion might look small, but it's not. Trust me, I had to be airlifted out.
Another 2013 menu add is the Fried Chicken & Waffles [pictured, right]. It includes two quarters (a half a chicken) that are perfectly fried. I am a fried chicken maniac, and I'm here to tell you that this version is very good. The waffles are darkly crisp, with a maple reduction drizzled thereon and atop the chicken. I hope they keep this on on for a while. It's a keeper.
A non-meat eater who joined us on our last visit ordered the salmon platter [pictured left]. It was very nicely crispy on the outside and still moist (but cooked!) on the inside. Like salmon? This one will make you happy.
I have also posted an updated photo of the shortribs [left] and kept the old one above. They continue to be delightful and are most certainly one of JAM's signature dishes.
Service has been OK on all of our visits. However, our most recent waiter, though polite, friendly and menu-knowledgeable, seemed unschooled in the art of getting the app plates the heck off the table in a timely manner. My most recent restaurant in Bethesda, MD was hammered by Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman for this very same thing, and I am still smarting from it. Being a captive audience to your congealing food scraps is not something that adds to the enjoyment of your main courses. I finally had to hold one of the plates out from the table, literally in his path, so he'd get the hint. To his credit, he did.
UPDATE: We have been to JAM four times since the paragraph above was written. The service has been perfect every time. Things happen, but i don't want you to think that that's business as usual at JAM Bistro.
Danielle's skills in the dessert department are obvious. We had the the delightfully decadent brownie [pictured left] that shared the plate with a cute little faux Rice Crispy Treat (see it?) that crackled with a toffee-like crunch. I can't say enough about her creations.
New desserts added in 2013 include an Apple Cinnamon Crisp with Granola and Bourbon Caramel, Chocolate Turtle Cheesecake (with the bourbon caramel) and the wonderfully deconstructed Pecan Bar with Bourbon Caramel Sauce, Ice Cream, and ... wait for it ... Bacon. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it. All are pictured right, left and below (hover your mouse over the pix for the names) and they all were delicious. JAM Bistro knows how to do desserts!
As far as our experiences and reader feedback so far, JAM is vastly improved now that they are above ground. There are indeed noise problems when they are crowded. (A low concave ceiling contributes to the shrieking echoes. I will be happy to lend my expertise in acoustics to resolve the problem. I've done it for others, so call me, guys.)
JAM Bistro is at 20 Baltimore Avenue on the ocean block, immediately east of their sister restaurant, Eden. Sidewalk dining is a must when weather permits. Give them a call for check on their off-season hours, Their specials are up-to-date in the off-season specials list. Check out a sample menu by clicking here. (D., Bar) Price range: Moderate +.