Lately we've been lucky enough to have some great dining experiences at restaurants that appear quite humble and understated, but serve up some really delicious and creative food that bely their surroundings. The latest to turn our heads is Jax Café in Benton Park.
Almost in the shadow of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, Jax Café appears from the street much like any number of South Side pub-and-grub concerns. Inside, the decor is sparse, though there are some colorful paintings of heavily tattooed biker types adorning the walls, along with several cabinets of Pez dispensers for a touch of quirkiness. All in all, a very casual and unassuming vibe permeates the place. Then, you take a look at the menu and realize something more is going on here than meets the eye.
Running the show at Jax is Chef Brian Hale, who has served in some of the city's best kitchens, including Monarch and The Chase Park Plaza. He's taken his fine-dining background and parlayed it into a unique menu touted as "gourmet eclectic comfort food." Eclectic is a perfect descriptor for the menu, which really runs the gamut in terms of influences and flavors.
We started of with a cup of the Soup du Jour ($3), a silky and sweet corn chowder, then moved right into some small plates. Not your typical nachos by any stretch, the Yellowfin Tuna Nacho ($14) is a board consisting of five fried wontons piled high with rosy sesame-encrusted chunks of fish and accented with mango salsa and a wasabi aioli—light and delicious.
For mains, we chose the Pan-Seared Mero ($19) and the Eggplant Canneloni ($15). We were totally unfamiliar with mero--turns out it's basically a type of sea bass. This dish features a flaky chunk of it served on an earthy, tender wild mushroom risotto cake and topped with a rich saffron beurre monte, a delectable butter-based sauce. On the side, some cayenne port wine beets. We didn't get as much heat from these as expected, but the deep flavor of the beets, coupled with the equally rich and complex addition of port, was sublime. The ‘canneloni’ we had eschews the traditional tubular noodles in favor of slices of eggplant, stuffed with a tasty mix of quinoa, wild mushrooms and brie, and topped with a smoky roasted red pepper coulis. Much as we love our pasta, the noodles weren't missed at all.
We capped the meal off with a shared order of Love and Brioche ($7), a surprisingly light confection featuring mascarpone, cream, coconut and one of our favorite childhood treats, Captain Crunch.
All of the dishes we sampled were plated to perfection and could have easily been offered up at any number of white-tablecloth places around town without changing a thing. All in all, Jax offers the best of both worlds: comfortable, laid-back surroundings and the highest quality cuisine. Like the old saying says, don't judge a book...
Jax also serves up lunch weekdays, as well as a Saturday and Sunday weekend brunch.
--- 2901 Salena St., 449-1995, jax-cafe.
Yellow Fin Tuna Nacho from Jax Café
For the tuna:
∙12 oz. center-cut tuna
∙Black sesame seeds
∙White sesame seeds
∙3 oz. sesame oil
For the relish:
∙4 oz. diced mango
∙2 oz. pineapple diced
∙1 oz. red onion diced
∙1 t cilantro, chiffonade
∙2 oz. red pepper, diced
∙1 oz. cider vinegar
∙1 oz. pineapple juice
∙1 oz. lemon juice
For wasabi aioli:
∙1 T wasabi paste
∙1 t rice vinegar
∙1/2 C mayonnaise
∙1/2 t sriracha
∙1 t clover honey
∙Cut tuna into 2-inch by 2-inch by 6-inch logs. Salt and pepper the tuna, then reserve.
∙Mix black and white sesame seeds together in a bowl.
∙Heat sesame oil in a pan.
∙Dredge tuna in the seeds.
∙Sear each side of tuna for one minute, then cool.
∙For relish, combine all ingredients in a bowl and reserve.
∙For aioli, combine all ingredients in a bowl and reserve.
∙To serve, slice tuna to be 1/8-inch wide. Place it on a wonton chip, top with relish and aioli and garnish with your favorite slaw.