Set in the Volunteer Park Cafe after hours on February 25th, the JAM team hosted a relaxed evening pop-up dinner with 15 guests. Most of the diners were friends of Aaron Wilcenski or Jesse Elliot, our wonderful chefs for the night, mainly from other Tom Douglas restaurants. Guitar based music drifted in the background, and those who arrived early sipped on the $5 wine and $2 PBR. There was little staging, but the dark wood main table that dominates the cafe doesn’t need much to feel inviting.
The six course meal showcased a wide range of influences, from hearty to the delicate, but felt most like a range of fancy home cooking for a special guest. Standout dishes included the antipasti, with ricotta, jardineira with salami, tomato confit, and soft, fluffy potato grissini with sesame seeds. The confit was pure, intense tomato, and that ricotta was strongly floral with lemon zest and olive oil.
The speck pasta I had tried previously and loved, only this time it included a duck egg yolk in addition to the lemon zest, delicate negroni carbonara spheres, and tons of pepper. Breaking that perfect hemisphere of yolk and mixing it into the pasta resulted in a creamy, spicy, porky dish, light and powerful in every bite.
A truffle gnocchi dish, with chicken, mushrooms, and truffle gelee, tried to bridge the gap between soup and pasta dish. The smokiness from chicken thighs helped to balance truffle-intense gnocchi and broth, and I think it would have been fantastic in soup form.
Two dishes I wasn’t as excited about included a tomato-infused risotto with baby octopus, salt and vinegar chips, and nori puree; and the chicken parmesan, a roulade with caper olive relish, mozzarella brulee, and white anchovies in a salty, crispy, almost panzanella stuffing. I could taste two sets of influences at work, and both worked as dishes, but weren’t the showstoppers the pasta and gnocchi were.
Dessert ended the meal on a high note with sweet bruschetta, using Dahlia Bakery ciabatta to cradle toasted almond butter, stone fruits and blackberries macerated in olive oil, hazelnut salt, and a balsamic drizzle. The almond butter was mellow enough to almost be marzipan, but the roasting brought out sweetness to go with that warm, crunchy bread.
The meal finished with taking home leftovers; the portions were huge for a six course meal. I asked Aaron about it, and he commented simply that he “wanted to be sure everyone ate enough.” He absolutely succeeded.
If you’re interested in seeing where JAM is headed next, keep watch on their Facebook page. It’s sure to be a blast.