Jack Rose to raise the bar on food with new chef

How does a chef upstage the drinks program at a place like Jack Rose Dining Saloon — or even persuade customers to keep their eyes on the plate, not on the hundreds of bottles of scotch and whiskey that surround them like crows on a wire? (We're counting Old Crows among them.)

Russell Jones will add a little leafy greens to the brown liquors on display at Jack Rose. (Vina Sananikone)
Russell Jones will add a little leafy greens to the brown liquors on display at Jack Rose. (Vina Sananikone)

Short answer: You don't. You sneak up on diners instead.

At least that's the plan for Russell Jones, the newly hired executive chef for Jack Rose, where beer, booze and the secret cocktail bar get all the attention. Jones, a former sous chef at Restaurant Eve and executive chef at Vinoteca, says he doesn't expect to unveil a new menu at Jack Rose and "all of a sudden, it becomes a dining destination."

No, his plan of attack is more subtle, more nuanced. He intends to cook food that fits the context of a drinking establishment. Think small plates, sandwiches, a burger, chicken, the kind of stuff generally found on pub menus. Jones just plans to refine the snacks and entrees, sometimes employing the techniques of fine-dining restaurants.

"If people do order something, I want them to be surprised," Jones says. "I want them to say, 'Wow, I didn't know they did food of this caliber.'"

Jones doesn't officially start his job until Monday — the day before Tax Day, so the chef can help late filers pick up their spirits, so to speak — but he's already working with the kitchen on menu development, both for the main dining "saloon" and the open-air terrace. Among Jones's ideas is a chef-driven take on a meal that his mother used to assemble back home in South Carolina: The family called it "snack dinner," an oxymoronic term applied to a collection of finger foods wolfed down for supper.

Snack dinner was typically engineered for football watching, "or when my dad wanted to watch golf and my mom wanted to do something easy," Jones says.

His version of snack dinner at Jack Rose will venture beyond deviled eggs and cheese spread on crackers. Jones is thinking about littleneck clams wrapped in lettuce with celery, apple and serrano chili or braised pork belly topped with spicy slaw and sitting in a shallow bowl of "bacon broth." Or even a clever, Asian-tinged take on liver and onions: quickly fried chicken livers, glazed with sweet soy and apple cider, and served with shallot rings and green onions. The chef expects to roll out his downstairs menu in late April.

"One thing that definitely appealed to me was approaching casual dining with the same technique and style as you would find in fine dining," the chef says.

Those techniques will even be hidden in the basic grill menu on the terrace. (Don't look for the menu until May or when Jones can assemble a team that can execute it to his satisfaction.) One dish that he's developing is a seemingly simple grilled chicken sandwich: He plans to brine and debone thighs, sous-vide the meat and then finish the chicken on the grill to pick up some smoke.

If these plates sound as if they're designed to raise the bar for cuisine (speaking of oxymoronic phrases) for Jack Rose, they are. Jones says owner Bill Thomas wants to elevate food to match the beverage program at his Adams Morgan operation, which had been limping along without a dominant figure in the kitchen since opening chef Michael Hartzer left.

"It seemed like it would be a fun challenge to raise the food program to the level" of the whiskey, scotch and beer programs, Jones says.

Jack Rose Dining Saloon, 2007 18th St. NW, 202-588-7388.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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