December 13, 1999 | Insatiable Critic

Take the Fifth

Jack's Fifth, hidden just across from the Plaza hotel, acquits itself well on all counts; also, a Vongerichten alum heats up Lower East Side eats.

        Marilyn Monroe had a chin implant. Archibald Leach changed his name. Clint Eastwood shut up. When New York City declined to fall for Pondicherry's act -- a dimwitted global menu under the politically louche rubric of French Colonial cooking -- its bruised overseas Indian owners pulled the plug. They trundled the wicker veranda furniture away, tossed the turmeric and cardamom in the garbage, hired a cabal of consultants, and assigned designer Larry Bogdanow to do a speedy makeover. The upshot is Jack's Fifth. Jack's "because it sounds so American," says managing partner Suvir Saran. Fifth as in Avenue, just steps away. 

        With the reflective amber sheen of what they're calling the Glow Bar -- coffee by day, spirits after dark -- Jack's team hopes we'll see once and for all that its entry is not the Paris Theatre's waiting lounge. Alas, there's no avoiding the daunting stairs to what is, no way to disguise it, a cellar. Though we may work ourselves into a lather at the gym every day, it's tough to coax us downstairs for dinner. Downtown, yes. Downstairs, ugh. I urge you to force yourself. You'll stop moaning when you see the warm elegance of the coffered silver-leafed ceiling, the high-backed booths in handsome woven padding, the dramatic tropical bouquet at the center -- sophisticated setting for Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Coltrane in the background. (The dreary fifties photos, Jacks of all trades, will have been banished by now, I am told.) 

        Settle in and rediscover Herb Wilson's bright, not annoyingly tricky, seasonally inspired cooking. A skilled journeyman, Wilson has been playing the field for twenty years -- from the River Café, Hubert's, and Le Refuge to an earlier Jack's, Zut!, and box-office boffo at Bambou. Wisely, he's been made a partner as well. That may cure his wanderlust. Does the menu seem overfamiliar? As Wilson observes, "New York food is market-driven." All chefs have access to the same fattened duck livers, the same pampered leaves and sprigs, the latest heirloom beet and potato. Not one creative squiggle on a plate, not a single gush of foam, not even the clever resurrection of some abandoned fixture of the fifties is unique for more than a week. 

        But there is something especially winning about Wilson's way with the autumn-1999 inevitables -- his roasted-beet salad, the tangy lump crabmeat with avocado, his caramelized diver scallops with couscous, savory oxtails (that ought to be an entrée), the first-rate herb-crusted rack of lamb, a really pristine and carefully cooked halibut, the excellent steak in Barolo sauce, and his sensational Zinfandel-braised short ribs with parsnip purée. His dishes seem simpler, cleaner, less all-over-the-world-on-one-plate. Even a chef's welcome, shrimp on a smidgen of saffron risotto, zings with a chorus of flavors. At the moment when some chefs might send out a citric ice as a palate clearer, Wilson offers an artery rush in a demitasse of creamy clam chowder. That adds a sense of generosity in a dinner that might run $150 for two (dinner entrées, $17 to $31) with a fine red from a brief but intelligent list. We loved the intense '96 Penfolds Cabernet Shiraz at $39. 

        The only way to escape November's roasted squash (or pumpkin soup) is to get lost in Chinatown, but Wilson's curry-touched butternut-squash soup has real oomph and toasted pepitas. The too-mushy hazelnut-crusted foie gras may no longer be an issue now that he's changed purveyors. My guests seem impressed by his revival of that seventies nouvelle cuisine darling, the seafood sausage, an early love object for me though familiarity ultimately bred lasting indifference. The farm chicken, with chanterelles and leeks in a port-wine glaze, is a shade overcooked. And though I must have my salmon rare, tonight Wilson has gone too far -- the applewood-smoked salmon, so deliciously teamed with green lentils and bacon in a red-wine fumet, is not even warm in the middle. The sophisticated complexity of plum-hazelnut tart with fig-Armagnac ice cream, the chocolate tasting, a small old-fashioned apple pie, or one night's mascarpone-layered spice cake with black-walnut ice cream and a Seckel pear are the irresistible creations of a veteran, too, Heather Carlucci, fresh from a three-star stint at JUdson Grill

"I'm a late bloomer," Wilson says. "I was an overage debutante always taking the wrong date to the prom. Here, at last, I have latitude to do what I want." Suddenly that flight of stairs seems like no big deal at all. 

Jack's Fifth, 8 West 58th Street (212-750-7474). Lunch, Monday through Saturday noon to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. 

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