Photo by Anne Fishbein
Jar is a chop house — and, as the terse name somehow indicates, a new take on that old institution. Indeed, it lacks the de rigueur darkness and tuck-and-roll booths, the red-nosed Republican male clientele, the caesars tossed tableside. Just what grand old traditions remain? To start with, the à la carte menu, the full bar, the clink of good glassware, and meat.
Jar has taken over the former site of Indochine, but no trace of the tropical or neocolonial lingers. The new dining room has pale celery walls and understated taupe-gray booths, white linens, carpeting and soft, subtle lighting. The dressed-up and the not-so-dressed-up customer alike looks and feels at home in this setting, which is neither formal nor casual, but quietly sophisticated. Civilized. The room’s visual calm, however, is belied by its acoustics — when full, the place is unabashedly noisy, the one unexpected legacy of the trendy, short-lived Indochine. Jar’s owners are addressing the problem; the walls, I’m told, will soon be padded.
The owners are two meat-cooking geniuses, chef Suzanne Tracht, formerly of Jozu and Campanile, and Mark Peel, who is the chef-owner of Campanile. The straightforward à la carte menu is made up of starters, followed by entrées and a selection of sauces and side dishes — at first glance, a rather small but standard steakhouse bill of fare. What really sets Jar apart is Tracht’s sly, minimalist, Asian-inflected sensibility. And her braises.
There’s a fearless simplicity to many of the dishes; Tracht’s not afraid to let her excellent ingredients speak for themselves. Fresh and plump black mussels, steamed in wine and their own liquor, are served with crusty toast and a satiny-smooth lobster béarnaise that echoes the mussels’ shellfish sweetness. Fried Ipswich clams have a crumbly, crunchy crust with such a perfect saltiness — they make you yearn for the New England seaside, even if you’ve never been there — that the two sauces (tartar and cocktail) seem optional, recreational. The truth is, Tracht may seem like a minimalist, but she’s also, simultaneously, a sensualist. One bite of rich, slippery, mouth-filling pork belly with crinkly pickled Savoy cabbage, and it’s clear that this chef knows the mechanics of giving pleasure.
At other times, though, Tracht’s restraint underplays a dish. A crab Louie salad is simply too bland, and the iceberg-wedge salad with blue-cheese dressing could take a hint from the Molly salad at Taylor’s steakhouse: Some chopped onions or a punchier dressing could really give that iceberg life.
The entrées are divided into those from the broiler, and braised or roasted items. On my first visits, I went straight for the steak. The rib eye, marbled, perfectly cooked, was good, not great — and a bit gristly. The tarragon-scented béarnaise went well with it, but that béarnaise would go well with anything. A few weeks later I had the New York strip, on the bone and dry-aged. Oh my God. A friend at the table, on receiving a much-begrudged bite, said, “It’s hard to believe it’s beef, and not some sublime new substance altogether . . .” I’d ordered the perfectly good horseradish sauce, but forgot to use it. Clearly, as Tracht gets her dry-aging perfected, we can look forward to more such moments of bliss. The veal New York is also wonderful, a pure, succulent meat with a delicious hint of wine in its flavor. (In veal of lesser quality, this slight sourness can be downright gamy.)
Tracht and her chef de cuisine, Preech Narkthong, have still more up their sleeves: Jar’s pot roast was my favorite dish of the year. Slow-braised for hours, it has a bottom-of-the-pot caramelized richness and intensity that won’t quit. Each bite blooms in the mouth — the depth of flavor is really quite remarkable. At lunch, the pot-roast sandwich is the biggest seller, deservedly so!
Pork shank, a new cut appearing in restaurants in the past few months, has a similar long-cooked depth of flavor — is that tamarind in its spicing? The shank itself is very rich; the meat, well-exercised and mineraly from the bone, comes off in plump, slippery clumps. Roast chicken, a deboned half bird infused with lemongrass, is another sublime ingredient perfectly prepared. The tamarind sauce is an excellent, if somewhat gratuitous, accompaniment.
Side dishes include a terrific creamed spinach that won’t make you worry about cholesterol, and a dreamy potato au gratin with leeks that will. The French fries, flavored with garlic and sprinkled with parsley, are perfect. Roasted yellow squash have a deep caramelized sweetness. Tracht’s Pacific Rim penchant really emerges in the sides; you could make an entire meal from the duck fried rice. As alternatives to spinach, try the virtuous pea tendrils with garlic, or peppery water spinach with garlic and red chiles. Mustard greens, however, are disappointingly tough and stringy.
I, for one, found Tracht’s minimalism most severe and problematic in the desserts. The banana cream pie has no custard! It’s just bananas and cream in a rather hard shell. The lemon tart has a good, intense custard but needs something to contrast with it, and the unadorned slice on the plate seems too plain. The chocolate pudding gains points by being a sentimental flavor. The lemon cheesecake with a strawberry sauce alone manages to be the simple, perfect ending to a pleasure-filled meal.
8225 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-6566. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner entrées $18–$29. AE, MC, V.