Little Luxuries at Jack’s

Jack'sLaura E. Lee Jack’s, 101 Second Ave.

Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, at 101 Second Avenue, is in the East Village, but not of the East Village. Jack’s introduces itself with the false modesty of a neighborhood speakeasy: The plain white door bears no sign, and the chief adornment of the facade is the air conditioner’s ventilation unit. The word “Luxury” is a sly joke as it applies to décor; it is meant to be taken with deadly seriousness, however, when it comes to food.

Jack’s has the most refined cuisine in the East Village, save for Degustation, around the corner on East 5th and also owned by restauranteur Jack Lamb, and perhaps also David Chang’s several Momofuku restaurants. The format at Jack’s, as at Degustation, is small-scale plates, though Jack’s is surely one of the city’s few seafood tapas places. The combination of small plates and a small menu means that a party of four can eat practically everything Jack’s serves, though a sounder approach might be to order two or three each of five or so dishes.

My wife and I invited our friends Roberta and Jerry, who say proudly that they never eat out. Jack’s, consequently, blew their minds. The first dish to arrive was the roasted oysters, which are served in their shell on a bed of peppercorns in a tureen, thus creating the momentary illusion that you have much more to eat than in fact you do. The oysters are made with chorizo, setting up a glorious battle between plump brininess and sharp smokiness. But there was much more. “I just got a whiff of something,” Jerry said. “I think it’s some kind of cheese.”

“No, I believe it’s potato,” said Roberta. She even thought she spied a tiny scrap of a potato-like substance in the scant remains of one oyster shell. I’m sure our waitress had told us everything that oyster had, but it’s more amusing to guess for yourself. Then came a scallop crudo—a kind of ceviche made from a thick slab of sea scallop rather than a tiny bay scallop, with little cubes of cantaloupe and crunchy. . .what? Puffed rice? “Puffed rice is an excellent idea,” said Jerry, by which he meant that I was making it up.

Up Close Bar at JLOBLaura E. Lee The interior of Jack’s.

Our little plates and cutlery were silently whisked away and new ones appeared, like a change of tennis balls at tournament-level play. This was a kind of intermittent reminder of seriousness of purpose. People who do not normally stray into Manhattan’s Far East find Jack’s a reassuringly familiar place. My parents, genteel octogenarians, were practically knocked galley-west, as we say shipboard, on their first visit to Jack’s, and they now proudly show the place off to their equally genteel friends. To locals, Jack’s is the grand style; to denizens of the Upper East Side, it’s satisfyingly raffish.

Where was I? Oh, the lobster pot pie. The chunk of lobster tail was incandescently sweet, and the pastry dough was as it should be, and it all came in what I believe I overheard was a root-vegetable ragout, along with tiny chunks of said vegetables, and the whole endearing pielet was encircled by little green dots of some vegetable coulis. The Arctic char was a thick bed topped with a tiny strip of something — charred char, I think — and then, moving downwards, a licorice-y sliver of fennel, what I would swear was shredded cabbage, and at the very bottom, like a hidden jewel, a brilliant pink wedge of sea-going fish.

We had, I believe, 12 dishes for the four of us, but we were still peckish. We ordered the espresso ice cream with panna cotta and espresso crumble. How many? Roberta shyly held up four fingers. The panna cotta struck me as slightly rubbery — the only imperfect note. The ice cream was rich and bitter and sweet, and the crumble was, if I may compare downward, like a divine version of Oreo cookie bits. It made a little slurry at the bottom of the dish. “It is good,” pronounced Jerry, by now an authority on the finer points, “to chew your dessert.”

Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, 101 Second Avenue, 212-979-1012.