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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.” Read more…

At Degustation, Food with a Flourish

Degustation 2Kathryn Kattalia Degustation, 239 East Fifth Street.

At Degustation, a tapas restaurant at 239 East Fifth Street, the indispensable article in the chef’s toolkit is the tweezers. The dishes are of micro dimensions, and are arranged from their constituent elements with minute delicacy. Once my wife and I had settled ourselves at one of the short ends of Degustation’s 16-seat U-shaped counter, we watched Oscar Islas, a burly chef, remove from a small plastic tub a tiny, soft pumpkin-colored object and delicately place it inside a ceramic egg cup. Oscar then put down his tweezers, and with a small spoon scooped a flimsy white blob of something unrecognizable into the cup — a panna cotta which had just enough gelatin content to prevent it from deliquescing altogether.

“What’s that?” my wife, Buffy, asked in horror. “That is way too wiggly for me to eat.” Yara Oren, who works next to Oscar and does more of the talking, explained that it was the sea urchin we had just ordered. “I promise you,” Yara said, “you will love it.” The tiny white-orange mass in our cup lay in a mild broth. I devoured most of the sea urchin and passed it to my wife, thus slightly reducing the ick factor. “Whoa!” Buffy said. “This is fantastic.”

Pretty much everything produced under the supervision of Degustation’s head chef, Wesley Genovart, is fantastic, both in the sense of wonderful and of pressing against the borders of conventional reality. It is the East Village’s window into avant-garde Spanish cuisine. The act of assemblage is as essential to such cuisine as the chemical transformation involved in cooking. An actual cook’s station runs along the length of Degustation’s counter, with a gas grill and burners, and Oscar and Yana performed their magic on the plates of grilled fish and meat being prepared behind their backs. The cooking seemed almost banal by comparison. If you’re seated at either end, you can witness the delicate compositional flourishes from two feet away. If you’re seated along the length of the counter you’ll have to make do with the gross business of applying heat to raw flesh.
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