Last month I turned 30. It was awful. A major midlife crisis. I was just about to grow a ponytail, drop all of my savings on a cherry red convertible and move to Las Vegas to pursue a career as an Elvis impersonator.
But fortunately a very special someone helped cushion the blow of the big three-oh with a very, very special birthday surprise.
On July 17th, the final night of my twenties, she took me by the hand and led me down the street to Jack’s Bistro.
Jack’s is one of my perpetual favorites. It’s the only restaurant I’ve ever visited where the dishes literally have the ability to make you laugh. Their menu changes regularly, but always includes at least a smattering of whimsy.
Over the two years or so that Jack’s has been open, I’ve had Mac and Cheese with Chocolate (which sounds bizarre, but is absolutely sublime), a seared crackling tuna dish with a fresh berry and pop-rocks sauce (yes, pop rocks), a dish called “Big Brother’s in Trouble” where tuna tartare is presented in a stem-less martini glass over a small bowl containing a live beta fish, and, most recently, a lobster and shrimp hot dog. The hot dog is served in a basket with fries on a cafeteria tray with ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles filled with tomato aioli and horseradish Dijon.
The Baltimore Sun named Chef Ted Stelzenmuller “The Most Wildly Imaginative Chef In Baltimore.” If Jack’s Bistro was in New York or LA, it would be impossible to get a table. Fortunately, this is Baltimore. So we can go fairly regularly.
As we walked in, Kristy, the Maitre D, greeted us and sat us at a table for two by the kitchen. Then, Chef Ted leaned over and introduced himself.
“So, you’re turning 30?”
“Yes.” I frowned and traced a finger over the tablecloth.
“Do you have any plans tonight that you have to get to?”
I looked across the table. My ladyfriend shook her head no.
“Good.” Chef Ted grabbed a kitchen towel and wiped his knife clean. “Cause we might be here all night.”
What followed was a food parade of epic proportions. The courses hopped from continent to continent, land to sea, comforting to cutting-edge. By the end of the meal, we had finished eleven courses, three impeccably paired wines and, as predicted, we outlasted every other guest in the dining room.
It was like being a judge on Iron Chef. A foodie dream come true. Or, in the eternal words of Andrew from Top Chef, “a culinary boner.”
Here is the full parade of food in all of its glory:
1) Ajo Blanco. A luxurous chilled white garlic gazpacho with jumbo lump crabmeat and a chive garnish. It was silky perfection.
2) A whimsical spin on the Caprese salad. Chef Ted presented a cherry tomato held in the prongs of a device called a “Squid.” The tomato was hollowed out and stuffed with tiny dice of buffalo mozzarella cheese. On the side, he served a micro greens salad of baby opal basil, basil chiffonade, and served atop a basil puree. Our server instructed us to use the salt shaker, filled with a dried vinaigrette (seen in the background) to “dress” the salad.
3) A salad trio. On the left is a warm braised fennel salad with orange. In the center, an orzo and beet salad, topped with goat cheese mousse. On the right, a cherry tomato cooked briefly and peeled. The tomato skin was flash fried to crisp up a bit. It was served atop scallion confit. All three were incredible. But the tomato took the cake. I could have eaten 11 courses of just the tomato and scallion dish.
4) Beet-cured gulf shrimp with frozen lime, Dijon and thyme vinaigrette. This one was incredibly unique. It was kind of like a ceviche-style carpaccio.
5) Beef Tartare with mushroom marmalade and a drizzle of truffle oil. On the side was a crouton, which may have also been flavored with the oil.
6) Vietnamese consommé. This dish was at once playful and comforting. We were instructed to steep the contents of the tea strainer in the consommé for a few minutes to flavor the broth. The strainer contained saffron, scallions and what looked like either garlic or ginger (or both). After flavoring the soup, we took the other spoon, which was filled with minced red and green peppers, red onion and a bit of chili to give the soup some heat. You can keep your chicken noodle soup. I want this next time I have a cold.
7) An Italian Nacho. This was one of the highlights of the night. (They were all highlights, but this one especially.) The “nacho” was a fried pocket of olive tapenade and parmesan crème, topped with a salsa fresca of diced tomato and (I think) onion.
Right around here, it was beginning to dawn on us that we’d lost count of how many courses we’d eaten. But they just kept coming.
8) Mussel Paella. Instead of putting mussels in the paella, Chef Ted put the paella in the mussels. The mussels were chopped, served in the shell and topped with a fragrant saffron Paella.
9) Sous Vide shrimp and scallop with julienne vegetables and tomato saffron sauce. Sous Vide is a technique where the food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag and cooked in a water bath at a very low constant temperature. If you caught any episodes of Top Chef, this was a popular technique for runner-up Richard Blais. The result is tender and delicate piece of seafood where none of the flavors are lost in the cooking.
10) Sous Vide Steak Frites. The steak was served medium rare with a demi-glace. The fries were drizzled with truffle oil. The steak was as good as any I’ve had anywhere. Run to Jack’s immediately and try it while it’s still on the permanent menu.
After 10 samples of savory, it was time to switch to sweet. Mercifully, there was only one desert course. I may have exploded if there’d been any more.
11) Sabayon with basil syrup and an almond tuile. It tasted as good as it looked.
In spite of the massive amount of food presented, I’m pleased to say that we were both members of the clean plate club for each and every one of the 11 courses. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I nearly licked the plate on more than one occasion.
After dinner, chef Ted presented me with a signed plate from the entire crew at Jack’s Bistro to add to my collection. Circling the rim of the plate, they listed all 11 courses from my mid-life crisis menu.
It will soon hang proudly on my wall among the other plates signed by Alice Waters, Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, Giada DiLaurentis, Iron Chef Cat Cora and (fittingly) competitive eating champion Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas. I think we did her proud.