Jack's in Kingfield champions fresh textures

Chef Kevin Kathman invents sculptural small plates

Jack's in Kingfield champions fresh textures
Emily Utne

In discussing his new menu at Jack's in Kingfield, executive chef Kevin Kathman eschews several labels. "The term 'New American' really conjures up the '80s for me, and even though the portions are smaller, calling our plates 'tapas' would only stick us in the '90s. We do apply some modern techniques, but I wouldn't use 'molecular gastronomy' to describe any of them," Kathman explains, somehow managing to say such things and yet be totally devoid of condescension. I admit, I expected at least a hint of affectation, considering Kathman worked under Thomas Keller at the three-Michelin-star French Laundry, a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain once called "the best restaurant in the world, period." Though that auspicious internship launched an impressive culinary career for this Cold Spring, Minnesota, native, Kathman remains acutely aware that any success he has at Jack's is shared. He mentions his kitchen team several times during our conversation, describing the collaborative process for every dish they develop and calling his collective "a creative think tank." The results of this team effort are balanced, sculptural dishes that urge you to take your time in enjoying them. Best of all, considering the quality, ingenuity, and presentation, they're priced in a way that allows you to enjoy them often.

Kathman, whose name might be familiar from his stint at Barbette a few years back, or as the catalyst behind the development of Pat's Tap and Bread & Pickle (the newest additions to Kim Bartmann's restaurant empire), rejects the constraints of working in one particular food genre or being driven by a single school of technique. "I think American food, which is what we're doing at Jack's and why we kept the name Jack's, which delineates nothing, should represent that image of the melting pot." Hearing this, one fears that the menu could be sorely lacking in focus, or worse, it could mean a hodgepodge of vaguely ethnic fried things, but Kathman's mission to be "refined and always refining, striving for perfection in a dish" means that, aside from getting pure, clean flavors out of each component (and there are always several) on each plate, the thread running through all Kathman's food is an almost clinical attention to texture.

The bites section of the menu (literally one- or two-bite-sized dishes) showcases some of Kathman's best examples of subtle and refined texture play. The leek soup shooter is a mixture of cold, grassy, pureed leek soup, topped with a warm, ineffably foamy version that stays floating atop the heavier liquid. When you take down the shot, the two never mix completely, but the separation is purposeful and works beautifully. Similarly, the miso shooter, with an explosion of deep, funky miso, and the dish of raw scallops, which are fleshy, slightly gelatinous, and balanced by the crunch of a hidden taro root chip, both exemplify Kathman's ability to reconcile textures in a marriage of opposites. Yet there could have been more pronounced textures at play in the truffle custard, which was luxurious in the first bite but got progressively duller with nothing to contrast the richness of truffle and the creaminess of custard. The tiny croutons that crowned the dish failed to provide the necessary crunch and maintain interest. Other dishes were refined in flavors but more rustically presented, such as the terrine of rabbit, a mixture of rabbit and foie gras wrapped in bacon and set on a heavy stone cutting board with a smear of spicy mustard, wafer-thin slices of cornichons, and hunks of toasted baguette; and the single baked oyster with spicy chorizo, placed carefully on an aromatic bed of sea salt, lavender, and whole coriander seeds.

"Striving for perfection": Kathman with his beet salad
Emily Utne
"Striving for perfection": Kathman with his beet salad

Since Jack's public reopening on January 10, Kathman has gone through three menu overhauls and constantly has new dishes in the works. He reveals one in particular, which will pair pork belly with spruce. "We've been having a lot of fun with that, and luckily spruce is an ingredient that's seasonal and local to the neighborhood." He says the influx of business will dictate what changes on the menu and when, but that "one thing we will never not have is the cheeseburger. With all the different things we offer, that's still far and away the most popular thing on the menu." Jack's version features pickles, fried onions, and good ol' American cheese. Though perfectly juicy and pleasantly greasy, the burger sticks out like the tallest fifth-grader in the class picture when placed next to the other entrees. The lamb, with a dollop of white bean puree, fresh plain yogurt, briny olives, and a refreshing salad of shaved fennel, is sophisticated and diminutive, but it delivers seriously bold flavors. Fork-tender pot roast is upstaged slightly by the fat, sweet, meat-juice-infused cooked carrots that border it. The cod dish, though cooked to just barely opaque perfection, was a bit of a letdown. The concept of the deconstructed chowder was apparent in the presentation, but some of the components were cold, and the sauce beneath the cod was gluey.

Since the main menu is relatively small, it came as a bit of surprise that Jack's had so many things to offer for dessert, but that all made sense after I learned that Kathman is taking on Jack's pastry station as well. "I actually kind of lost the coin toss on that one," he admits. "I'm trying to apply more of the refinement I'm always talking about to the pastry section now." In addition to a bacon-laced chocolate bread pudding, the grapefruit panna cotta was particularly sublime: tart enough to keep all the flavors alive, firm enough to avoid a flan-like experience, and velvety enough to taste like something you probably couldn't make at home. So with responsibilities in virtually every area, from pastries to the wine list to deciding what he can make into a happy-hour (yep, they do that too) slider, has Kathman achieved the creative control he so craved when he agreed to come on at Jack's? "After doing all the corporate consulting, I wasn't really happy. When I came to Jack's so much evolved naturally, but so quickly. I basically had to relearn how to be a chef." The refresher course definitely shows, and the takeaway from Jack's is that you don't always need a special occasion as an excuse to experience special food.

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10 comments
Citygirl
Citygirl

Jack's continues to struggle to find their identity. Going back to being a coffee shop would do the place a service. Great location, great ambience, but they really struggle with the food. Time to pick something and stick with it.

Answer Me Dickerson
Answer Me Dickerson

Citypages, you look like hacks by leaving this story up. We know that the "chef" left town and the place went back to frozen burgers and greasy fries. Don't you think you should at least banner it "closed" like you do on the best of list or something? Anything? Anyone? Hacks....

Dickersonherb
Dickersonherb

so, yeah, there you go. i was right, it's not a 'real business'.

Lhayes
Lhayes

I prefer trying small plates places to indulging at yet another burger joint--Jack's seems to have possibilities. Thank you City Pages/Emily Weiss for pointing it out.

MEG
MEG

Does anyone else find the "in Kingfield" bit of the name gratuitous? Java Jack's never identified with that neighborhood before (other sites online identify it as being in Southwest, or what I would put it at - East Harriet), but it's trendy to do so now with all of the other new, popular places in the area.

Guest
Guest

If the photo is an accurate representation, it looks as though I'd have to stop somewhere on my way home from Jack's just to get full. Seriously, who is the joke on with places like this?

Big Herb Dickerson
Big Herb Dickerson

I read the story and was all jacked up and thought I would probably go soon. BUT then I typed in the web address. Hmmm, no in operation. So I googled it. Yup, YOU CAN NOT BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS A BUSINESS IF A "PLEASE PAY HERE" MESSAGE COMES UP ON A GENERIC DOMAIN SERVER" DEAR CITY PAGES, PLEASE DON'T WASTE OUR TIME ON HALF-ASS OPERATIONS ANYMORE...

Right
Right

West of Lyndale = not Kingfield

Mekwe
Mekwe

Their site works just fine for me.

Dickerson the Prophet
Dickerson the Prophet

is it at all possible that with their largest publicity piece going out and me calling them on not paying the website bill that they quickly did so? yup, btw, did you see the kitchen team walked out today?

 
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