Jack's in Kingfield champions fresh textures
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.
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.
Though packed on Friday and Saturday nights (reservations are recommended), Jack's is relatively quiet at brunch, which it serves on Saturday and Sunday mornings. "Dinner is our time to experiment in the kitchen. It's the catalyst for pretty much everything we do here," Kathman says. "But everything we make for brunch is for fun." It's the kind of food a dad who also happens to be a chef would make for his family on a Sunday morning. There's everything from French toast with fruit compote and vanilla whipped cream to eggs Florentine with braised beet greens, roasted tomato, and a brown butter hollandaise. And though he has successfully dodged my attempts to get him to single out the dish that represents Jack's ethos, I do finally get Kathman to take exclusive ownership over one thing. "The green chile pork shoulder hash at brunch," he admits. "That one is all passion. It's hours spent on one of the simpler dishes. That one is pure Kevin."
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