Little Jack was a boxer. Like any man whose name is preceded with an adjective calling attention to his diminutive stature, Jack was acutely aware of his world and his place in it. Being comparatively small within the cutthroat 1930's boxing underbelly of New York City hardened him due to the fact that he lost many bouts, mainly because of his size. Fed up with taking a backseat to his larger, more aggressive contemporaries, Jack fought hard and won a match in which he was the bettor's underdog, thus putting a dangerous mark on his head. Not wanting to see what potentially deadly fate lay ahead of him, he fled New York with his wife, herself an avid breeder of show dogs, and opened a restaurant in Charleston. Little Jack's Tavern has been tucked away on Upper King Street ever since, and is now run by Jack's grandson, a third-generation restaurateur who decided to give the menu a fresh local update.
This, of course, is entirely bullshit.
I overheard a bartender tell this story to some patrons during my first visit to Little Jack's Tavern, and it was met with enthusiastic nods and rapturous attention. I was in mid conversation with a fellow diner who I hushed dramatically so that I could hear the story in its entirety. With black-and-white photographs of boxers, dogs, and horses displayed prominently on every wall in the place, I assumed that there had to be a juicy story behind the seemingly disjointed atmosphere. When the bartender finished the tale of Little Jack, he dropped a casual line to his diners: "Actually, that's not true. The owner just wanted to come up with a cool backstory for the restaurant."
What he was effectively saying, albeit with a very creative anecdote, was that this restaurant's brand has been carefully sculpted and meticulously designed. By crafting a narrative, Little Jack's can justify its hipster-chic atmosphere which consists of lamps, photographs, silverware, china, and stemware deliberately chosen so that they appear sourced in small quantities from a thrift store. The admittedly cute look borders on pretentious and serves as a distraction from the food.
What's featured is a vast improvement over the smaller menu at Saint Alban, the restaurant that previously occupied the same space. Without changing hands, owners Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink closed the aforementioned restaurant in favor of a more diverse local menu featuring daily lunch and dinner, with everything from snacks to steak.
My first impression of the menu proved to be relatively consistent throughout my meal. The warm cheese puffs ($4.50) were crispy on the outside and airy within, reminiscent of a buttery popover. When dredged through the accompanying house-made boursin, it had just enough of a garlicy cheese bite to add a necessary tang to the crispy puff. Next came the garlic and herb fries ($6) which are decadent and perfectly crisp. Thanks to their superb texture, these are easily some of the best fries in the city.
A salad special ($11) featuring heirloom tomatoes was one of the best things I ate. Accompanied by locally grown peaches, basil, celery, and buttermilk blue cheese dressing, the tomatoes, which could not have been more ripe, were an excellent foil to the juicy and succulent peaches. More ingenious than the seemingly odd pairing of tomato and peach was the addition of celery. When sampled with a hint of blue cheese dressing it gave just the faintest sensation of eating a plate of wings with much fresher, healthier ingredients. I've never tasted a salad like this in Charleston and hope that this recipe is indicative of future creative plates from Little Jack's Chef John Amato.
The grilled vegetable salad ($12) was equally memorable. Classic summer veggie staples are all present: green and yellow squash, red onion, asparagus, and green beans complemented with fresh sunflower seeds and placed atop a bed of creamy spiced yogurt. This dish showcase's Amato's excellent understanding of vegetable combinations, something he became known for previously at The Park Cafe.
But while the vegetable-driven plates shined, the entrees left something to be desired. Amongst the schnitzel salad ($19), brick chicken ($18), and the butcher's choice (market price), the most successful of the three was the schnitzel. Served Milanese-style, the pork filet was simultaneously juicy and crispy, which played well with the mildly bitter arugula, fried chickpeas, lemon dressing, and capers. The sweet pork contrasted with the sour lemon, creating a full-palate sensation with every bite.
The brick chicken and butcher's choice ribeye, however, were letdowns. The ribeye plate with romesco sauce and broccoli rabe was poorly executed. While the combination sounded appealing, the romesco was nearly devoid of flavor. I expected a bold and fiery roasted tomato sauce, but what was served couldn't hold up to the robust flavor of the marbled meat. The broccoli rabe — a complex and often misunderstood vegetable that has a slightly sour taste to it that can be toned down through blanching prior to preparation and normally one of my favorites — was charred. Grilling it directly over an open flame intensified its sourness. I would have loved for the broccoli rabe to have gotten the same care the vegetable salad received. Sadly, the obvious talent I witnessed earlier in the meal was not present here.
The least inspired of the three entrees was the brick chicken. This name is misleading because normally brick chicken means that the chicken is literally cooked under the weight of a brick or rocks, compressing the meat and intensifying the crispy texture of the skin. The chicken thighs that were placed in front of me did not appear to be flattened, and the skin was flabby and undercooked. It was served atop a bed of mixed seasonal greens, and the whole affair was doused in lemon juice, overwhelming the entire dish. What could have been satisfying comfort food was ultimately underwhelming.
While it's clear that there's talent in the kitchen at Little Jack's, the inconsistencies between dishes cause me to hesitate instead of fully embrace this creative new eatery on Upper King. Some dishes were gorgeously prepared — the Jack's Burger ($15) is a winner though pricey (for comparison, Husk's cheeseburger is $14) — while others seemed to be created by someone with minimal experience marrying flavors and textures. It's frustrating seeing this much potential existing in the same kitchen.
Certainly the argument can be made that in time these slip-ups will be ironed out, but there are a lot of factors to take into account with Jack's. Chief among them is the painstakingly designed interior. Upon a trip to the restroom to wash my hands, I noticed that there was no soap in the bathroom. Instead, a vintage porcelain Boraxo powder soap dispenser was placed next to the sink to keep with the 1930's theme. If this much effort was put into the feel of the place, where was the extra effort in kitchen consistency?
That said, I remain optimistic that Little Jack's Tavern will eventually come into its own. While kitschy, the atmosphere is already fully conceptualized, fable though it may be. A necessary reworking of some dishes will fine tune the menu and give the food the focus that it deserves.