Posted On: 09/01/2014
I wouldn’t blame you for comparing Brian Hale – the ponytailed darling of the St. Louis culinary scene of nearly a decade ago – to Carl Casper from this summer’s hit indie film, Chef. Both are tempestuous, talented and tattooed. Both feel the passion and pressure of the culinary life. Both find happiness by opening their own restaurants: Casper, a food truck in Los Angeles; Hale, Jax Café in Benton Park. Both make a mean Cuban sandwich.
Who could blame you? The parallels are just too tempting – and not all that far apart. From the outside, it may look like a step down for a guy who once helmed the kitchens of St. Louis’ formerly top restaurants, notably SqWires and Monarch, not to mention all seven kitchens at The Chase Park Plaza. Ask, and Hale will readily talk about his rock-star career, how ego and burnout led to his voluntary sabbatical and how his 14-month-old Jax Café, in partnership with Gina and David Seltzer, is exactly what he wanted.
Hale took over the former Pointer’s Market building, tucked away on a leafy, quiet side street, and for the first eight months offered only breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, a sure sign that he was taking a slower, simpler route. But by March, weekday breakfast was so slow that Hale dropped it in favor of dinner service, which is what he loves best. (Lunch and weekend brunch are still offered.)
Straightforward American fare infused with Asian and European influences is the hallmark of Hale’s approach. Case in point: tuna nachos. Five triangles of fried wonton dough played the role of “tortilla chips,” each topped with a slice of sesame seed-studded, seared yellowfin tuna, mango-pepper relish and creamy wasabi aioli. As you take a bite, noticing how the horseradish-y wasabi cuts through the sweetness of the mango, look around: the charm of the mismatched flatware, the unadorned interior, Hale’s dizzying collection of Pez dispensers. Watch him bring out plates of hot food. Listen as he tells a diner that the Swiss chard delivered earlier that day didn’t look good, hence the green beans on his plate.
I’ve enjoyed several brunches at Jax well before this assignment (I recall some remarkably fluffy hazelnut pancakes and really good dark roast coffee), but dinner is where Hale belongs. The evening menu features a quartet of appetizers (counting those tuna nachos), three salads, a nightly soup (like a flavorful shiitake hot-and-sour, as deeply concentrated as a good French onion soup) and a handful of entrees varied enough for most diners, including vegetarians (who will enjoy the noodle-less eggplant cannelloni).
The website states Jax specializes in “gourmet eclectic comfort food” and “recognizable food with a twist.” A juicy slab of rib-eye, seasoned with salt and pepper and seared, was certainly comforting, especially with a side of dirty mashed potatoes. Delicious roasted Brussels sprouts, chopped and laced with lardons, accompanied the dish. The slight twist came from the blueberry steak sauce, its subtle sweetness carrying a touch of heat.
More comfort was served up with Shiitake Chicken, a juicy, boneless breast propped up with grilled asparagus and light, fluffy mashed potatoes. But it was the rich, creamy sauce, chunky with mushrooms and caramelized onion, that elevated this otherwise common dish. Pan-seared sea bass, moist and flaky, looked particularly dramatic when presented on a long, thin slab of slate. The fish, striped zebra-like with a balsamic reduction and saffron-infused beurre monté (a luscious emulsified butter sauce), sat atop a risotto cake made with savory wild mushrooms. To the side were beets soaked and cooked in port wine and cayenne pepper, a nice twist that imparted delicate sweetness and pleasantly sneaky heat to the earthy root.
Then there was the duck confit, the dish that more than any other exemplified Hale’s style and whimsy. A savory chipotle-cherry pancake is topped with arugula, creamed corn and a confit of duck leg, followed by a dollop of apricot marmalade and stripes of balsamic reduction for acidity. If you’re thinking that’s a lot of competition for a limited number of taste buds, try describing it. I gave up on wordsmithing by the third bite and just concentrated on the surprisingly complementary flavors.
There’s a small but thoughtful list of wines with reasonable prices and healthy pours by the glass. Local beers are well represented. Cocktails, like the Elderflower Fizz and the Bourbon and Peach, are fun but too big. The large servings dilute not only the alcohol but the whole purpose of a pre-meal cocktail. It’s hard to have a glass of wine with dinner while still working on a nightclub-sized drink.
Jax is exactly the kind of restaurant you want in your neighborhood: great food prepared with panache (“We don’t even have a microwave,” a server proudly stated), casual and comfortable surroundings and attention to detail from a chef who’s doing what he loves. It’s exactly the kind of restaurant you want to succeed. Like Chef Casper, it seems Chef Hale has found redemption and serenity in his new life and restaurant, which of course makes us happy diners. (Cue swelling music and roll credits.)
Don’t Miss Dishes
Yellowfin tuna nachos, sea bass, duck confit, rib-eye
Simply decorated, casual neighborhood setting that belies the high caliber of the cuisine.
$15 to $19
2901 Salena St., St. Louis. 314.449.1995, jax-cafe.com
Wed. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sat. – 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sun. – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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