A culinary legend from the '80s is brought back to life in Midtown Manhattan.
It is a rare film whose remake decades later is touted as better than the original. In a revival, the paradigms set by the original film somehow feel compromised, anachronistic, or just banal and no longer relevant. Rarely does a remake win an Oscar.
The same can often be said of a restaurant, particularly a restaurant like Jams, whose original style of California cuisine made waves in the restaurant culture of New York, but whose intellectual direction today is much less clear. Yet like many of these contemporary movies, Jams is still a restaurant worth experiencing, if not for insights into the culinary canon, then for tremendously well prepared food with a mild spark of freshness and creativity.
The origin of "California cuisine" and its then-novel idea of using all-natural, locally grown ingredients to establish a regional style of cooking rooted in abundant seafood, lightly cooked vegetables, and lots of herbs is usually traced back to the 1970s with Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. But after cooking in her kitchen and in Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica, Jonathan Waxman gets the credit for bringing this style of cooking with French techniques and Californian ingredients to New York in 1984 with the original Jams.
Despite its popular success and its bounty of light proteins, citrus, and fresh cilantro that drew New Yorkers eagerly away from the steakhouse, economic forces compelled Jams to shutter by the end of the ‘80s. Over 25 years later, the restaurant that now sits in the 1 Hotel Central Park on 58th Street and 6th Avenue is not so much a shot-for-shot remake of a once influential pioneer of cuisine, but rather a contemporary, New American restaurant with quiet nods to Waxman’s Western culinary roots.
Much like the decor in the hotel rooms upstairs, the spacious dining room at Jams is airy and full of light, neutral colors and natural woods, with an occasional pop of green, crawling ivy. Large windows that stretch to the floor give the space a high-end, yet industrial loft-like feel. At night, the sense is that Jams could easily be sitting on the side streets of San Francisco or Downtown LA.
Occasional misfires on the menu threaten to shake the California dream of this restaurant, however. While the Roasted Mushroom Salad is full of delightfully earthy notes coming from the pine nuts, parmesan, and bitter greens, the muscatel vinaigrette is applied too liberally, and slimes up the mushrooms in a thick, oily dressing. The Maplebrook Burrata is a more balanced first bite, with subtle pepper flavors from the watercress and sweeter, nuttier flavors from the pistachio on top.
Seared, just barely cripsy Gnocchi is served with lots of shaved brussels sprouts, pecorino, and a massive dose of walnut sage pesto in what would have been a heavy-handed stylistic faux pas if it weren't so good. The sage is an addictive complement to the bitterness of the sprouts, and all balance the perfectly prepared potato pillows of gnocchi, which was served at the end of summer with corn, lobster, and cherry tomatoes. It’s a dish that only improves as it evolves.
Proteins like the Jams Chicken and NY Steak are both charred on the outside and juicy on the inside, dressed with the lightest of sauces. The chimichurri sauce coating the steak is more successful than the simple tarragon butter melting over the restaurant’s signature chicken dish, but they are likely the best two entrees on the menu.
Yet the film is still in post-production, it would seem. The restaurant opened in August of this year, so it may be helpful to think of it as a work in progress to forgive several blunders in service that can occur throughout the course of a single meal. At one point while ordering recently, my friend looked up from her menu at our waiter and asked if he could possibly replace the beets in a salad with tomatoes or something else. He just stared beyond our table, impatient and unsympathetic, and mumbled simply, "Tomatoes aren’t in season."
That’s not what she asked, but, well, okay. Thanks for reminding us that despite all of Jams’ talk about low-fat sauces and fresh, colorful ingredients plucked in their prime, we are still in Midtown Manhattan, 3000 miles away from west coast hospitality, 3000 miles away from California.
Yet I suppose that’s what happens when a remake is so far removed from its original. Some significant details are lost, replaced with sanitized versions of themselves. In the end, The Great Gatsby was a good movie, but it wasn’t a Best Picture. The new Jams is a good restaurant, even if it isn’t an inspired one.