Following the departure of Jeremiah Tower in 1978, Jonathan Waxman went to work at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. It was already America’s most influential restaurant, the one where contemporary ideas about fresh, local, and farm-driven were first hatched. Waxman exited Berkeley and went downstate in 1979 to help found Michael’s in Santa Monica, one of L.A.’s most revered restaurants of the era. If you want to know what those early days were like, read Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples, in which Waxman figures prominently. But these were mere prelude to what was to follow — his departure for New York in 1984, taking the seeds of the cuisine he helped create with him, and planting them in the rich soil of the restaurant scene here during one of its most opulent periods.
Founded in 1984, Jams was an instant hit, capturing not only the essence of California cuisine, but its insouciance, as well. The centerpiece was a grilled chicken-and-fries entrée that shocked everyone with its price tag of $23, but additionally causing a sensation were red snapper ceviche, crab cakes with corn-and-tomato salsa, and, especially, tiny pancakes served with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and yellow whitefish caviar. New York had never seen a restaurant quite like Jams, causing Bryan Miller to coo in the Times, "Of all of the trends that have sprouted in New York City in recent years, however fleeting, one that has thrown strong roots and become part of the landscape is so-called California cuisine."
On this wave of approbation, Waxman opened two more restaurants in New York and another Jams in London. Then came the stock market crash of 1987, and suddenly high-rollers with expense account money drifted away, and Waxman’s empire was wiped out in the blink of an eye. The peripatetic chef returned to L.A. for a while, then reappeared in New York, where he worked behind the scenes on several restaurants without much visibility. At times he seemed only partly engaged in his restaurant career, staying out of the spotlight for years at a time.
Finally, his fans cheering on the sidelines, he dove into the pool again, opening Washington Square Park in 2002 on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Of it, Bobby Flay — a Waxman protégé — enthused in a New York Times interview, "When I walked into the restaurant the other night, it seemed like it was Jams in the year 2002, elegant but casual. He has his open kitchen again. He always had all-star teams working for him, fabulous cooks." The next year Waxman opened Barbuto ("beard" in Italian) on the ground floor of Industria Superstudio, a complex of photo studios aimed at the fashion industry, on the southern edge of what would become known as MePa.
Washington Square Park is now long closed, but Barbuto persists. And just this year Waxman opened a new Jams, just off the lobby of 1 Hotel Central Park. Now, with two restaurants in New York at the same time, it’s beginning to seem like 1984 all over again. I decided to visit both to see what an older, mellower Jonathan Waxman (he’s now 65) was up to at this moment in time.
When I visited Barbuto with Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Gold, and a table of Gourmet writers and editors a year after its opening, it was one of the city’s glitziest scenes, a sort of Studio 54 meets Balthazar, made infinitely more exciting by the surrounding neighborhood’s darkness and the faint odor of tallow. Not only did models mince down the adjacent ramp from the overhead studios, they were seated among us in skimpy dresses, their lips glinting with lip gloss. Nowadays the crowd is older and stodgier, many of them condo dwellers and townhouse owners from the surrounding hood, but the restaurant is still thronged at all hours, and reservations must be made weeks in advance.
Served with an Italian salsa verde redolent of anchovies and capers, the half chicken is every bit as good as it ever was, perhaps better.
The place continues to feel like a concrete garage, the tables closer together than I remember them, paralleling a long bar. All eyes still glance eagerly toward the busy open kitchen, and especially at the chicken rotisserie in the corner, with its own dedicated cook. When the place first opened, the bearded and curly headed Waxman was to be seen wrangling poultry. Served with an Italian salsa verde redolent of anchovies and capers, the half chicken is every bit as good as it ever was, perhaps better. The rub on the bird has changed so now it smells faintly of…is it lavender? And the price is $23, the same as the bird was that first year at Jams, only now it seems like a bargain. It’s a big bird.
My second favorite thing came as a surprise. A kale salad ($12) featured the intransigent leafy vegetable chopped so fine that it slid down the gullet smoothly, its slightly bitter edge concealed by plenty of salty pecorino and saltier anchovies, with a squirt of sweet honey. Notably ungreasy stuffed clams, with some golden raisins in addition to the usual bread crumbs and pancetta, and fried calamari with a minimum of breading, were other standouts.
If you could explore only one section of the seven-part menu, it should be the pastas. Waxman’s bucatini all’ amatriciana ($21) is one of the best versions ever tasted, each perforated strand carefully coated with a bright sauce made with fresh Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, a sprinkle of grated pecorino on top nailing the flavor. This is Italian cooking with a California twist, a cuisine that L.A. chefs like Nancy Silverton, Wolfgang Puck, and Mark Peel (one of Waxman’s associates at Michael’s) have been exploring for decades, and one to which Waxman has added impressive innovations of his own.
Yes, over the years Barbuto has only gotten better, with a practiced crew in both the front and back of the house who have learned every trick to what makes a restaurant great. And the recent sale of Industria Studios, leaving the fate of Barbuto up the in air, means making what may be a last visit only more imperative. One caveat: the noise level, with tinkling glasses and voices dialed up to a shout, can be almost unbearable, but the food is worth every decibel.
Is it possible to successfully duplicate a great restaurant from the past? Apparently not as far as appearance goes. While the original Jams was situated on two floors of an elegant Upper East Side townhouse, the current version is a drafty U-shaped space within sight of the registration desk of a Midtown hotel. Jams is now classified as an amenity, like a lobby with wifi or a spa in the basement. The high-ceilinged room is attractively lined with wood and hung with Edison light bulbs, and the chairs that surround a multiplicity of square tables have a groovy 60s feel to them. Shelves of alcohol bottles are positioned above a long, long bar, solving someone’s storage problem. An open kitchen lurks in the deepest recesses of the restaurant.
But the biggest challenge facing the recreation of a hit restaurant from the 80s is us. Our tastes have collectively changed since then, principally through the incorporation of culinary principles espoused by Waxman and his California pals 30 years ago, now incorporated into every menu in town and become keystones of the foodie philosophy. Soon after Jams 2.0 opened, I sat there with a bunch of colleagues from Eater (including three critics, who managed to remain anonymous) and pondered this truth, as we ate our way around the menu. We paid special attention to the handful of dishes that had been transferred nearly intact from the original menu at Jams.
The blinis and smoked salmon ($25) were there with bells on, three pancakes that might have come from I-Hop topped with a curl of smoked salmon and little heap of caviar, flooded with corn sauce. The app was still tasty, but over the decades had lost its ability to thrill — such a once-shocking juxtaposition of ingredients has now become commonplace. It set us wondering if the smoked salmon used at the original Jams might have been sourced at Russ & Daughters or Barney Greengrass.
The worst dish of 11 sampled was a bone-in pork chop cooked like wiener schnitzel, overcooked, really, into an almost-burned toughness.
Our meal dragged on for nearly three hours that evening, as a result of both wavering service and confusion in the kitchen — into which we could see with perhaps too much clarity. More than once we endured a 30-minute interval with no food brought out at all. The dishes readily divided themselves into good and awful. An ample bacon cheeseburger ($21), named after the restaurant and listed as a bar snack, was fat and juicy and required frequent visits to the cloth napkin, while an oblong pesto-and-goat cheese mini-pizza tasted more Greek than Italian; it was delicious, though, with its smoky crust. Squid ink rigatoni with crabmeat was too al dente, the underdressed noodles black and glistening with not enough crustacean. The worst dish of 11 sampled was a bone-in pork chop cooked like wiener schnitzel, overcooked, really, into an almost-burned toughness. The top was heaped with random wet ingredients that only served to make the crumb coating mushy. Sadly, it had once been a good cut of meat.
Hoping that the inept cooking, at least, was the result of opening-month jitters that would be remedied as they place settled into a groove, a friend who’d been there on the first go-round and I revisited seven weeks later, sneaking in at 5:30 and sitting in the barroom just off the hotel lobby, since reservations had become nearly impossible to obtain. The service was superb but the food even worse than before.
Though ordered medium rare, the hamburger we’d once loved was now cooked almost to a cinder. The butternut squash chowder came freighted with potatoes, forcing us to poke around in the small bowl hoping to find cubes of squash. The calamari arrived on a piece of burned toast; the cephalopod might have been rubber bands. The tiny pork belly tacos ($19), though, were thoroughly delicious — accompanied by one teacup of smashed avocado and another of pico di gallo made with perfect ripe tomatoes. The biggest disappointment was an entrée called mezze ($23), which connotes a set of Greek or Middle Eastern starters that often include baba ganoush, hummus, and tabbouleh. In this case it was a grilled slice of eggplant, half a grilled summer squash, a lackluster grain salad, and little else.
The meal was well-paced, but the food, apart from the tacos, was badly executed and disappointing. Certainly, one can imagine another Jams with all the verve, excitement, and sheer modernity of the original; unfortunately, this one seems like a blasé look backward with the cynical intention of converting memory to cash.