Tom Sietsema on Jackie's: Six-year-old eatery retains old charms with new chef

Pork Carnitas
Pork Carnitas
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 12, 2010

If I lived closer and my job didn't involve chasing new restaurants and keeping tabs on old ones, Jackie's would see a lot more of me.

The Silver Spring retreat has been open for six years; by industry standards, that makes Jackie's a teenager. Even so, it still feels like a secret every time I turn off busy Georgia Avenue, veer onto relatively quiet Sligo Avenue and spot the low-slung brick exterior of what used to be an auto parts shop, now radiating the amber and pink of jazz clubs and speakeasies from behind its windows. To ward off drafts, a faux-fur curtain hides the heavy front door in cold weather and only adds to Jackie's magnetism.

Inside is a place to eat and drink that sets itself apart from the hot spots of Washington with a groovy style sense that's one part "Mod Squad" and another part industrial chic. The fabrics on the booths hugging the brick walls appear to have been lifted from the closets of Carol Brady and Farrah Fawcett's Jill Munroe; a scrim between the bar and dining area is animated with DVDs that take you underwater, into space or on a drive through the Irish countryside. Hustling around the room is a happy hipster with hair that appears to have been whipped up with an eggbeater (and is known to change hue with frequency). She is Jackie Greenbaum, the muse behind the marquee and part of the fun of an evening here.

There's another woman here you should get to know. She's Diana Dávila-Boldin, 28, who replaced Frank Morales in the open kitchen in April. My first dinner on her watch, in Ju?ly, was a disappointment brought about by tough empanadas filled with raw-tasting summer squash and dry meatloaf with (better) Indian-spiced vegetables. It must have been an off night, however, because subsequent meals this fall reveal a chef who can knock some balls out of the park. Her variety is welcome, too. If one chooses, a diner can start with skewered shrimp that would taste at home in a Thai restaurant (well, save for their fluffy bed of quinoa laced with cilantro) and move on to dishes that weave Indian or Mexican accents onto the plates. That's your cue to skip the ordinary beet salad in favor of, say, the fried sambusas served with fiery red and green dips. Potatoes, lentils, chickpeas and faraway spices gush with each bite of the edible packets.

Dávila-Boldin's plump roast chicken, framed with crisp haricots verts and chestnuts flavored with duck fat, goes down like Thanksgiving. Every component is appealing, but the moist, oregano-scented stuffing is first among equals, enriched as it is with -- veal sweetbreads? They weren't selling as a special, Dávila-Boldin explains in a subsequent telephone interview, so she slipped the organ meat into the accompaniment because "everybody loves stuffing."

This isn't Dávila-Boldin's first time running a kitchen. Back in her native Chicago, and when she was only 21 years old, her restaurateur parents put her at the helm of one of their establishments, Hacienda Jalapeños. Knowing that, you should check out her tacos stuffed with crisp-edged pork, offered on a TV dinner-style tray with mellow charro beans in one hollow and whipped avocado sprinkled with sea salt in another. Lean and rosy sliced venison is another nod to Mexico. Artfully arranged with diced sweet potatoes and marble-size parisienne potatoes, the entree gets zigzags of a mole that's made from scratch using several kinds of dried peppers, nuts, cloves, star anise, nutmeg, chocolate: a veritable spice cabinet of amplifiers. Dávila-Boldin's sauce is dusky and nuanced, as good as any I've had in Oaxaca.

There are few constants in life. One of them is the mini Elvis burger at Jackie's. Make that burgers, since they're served two to an order. No matter the season or who's in the kitchen, the sandwiches are always on the menu. Unlike so many of the contenders out there, they compete not via brioche buns or designer beef but rather with crusty surfaces, juicy interiors and dabs of pimento cheese. Tucked into a soft roll with a ruffle of lettuce, the burger is impressive for its straightforwardness.

Monday typically is a slow night for restaurants. Jackie's gives diners 12 or so reasons to leave home with a concise "cafe menu." The roster includes those mini burgers, some scaled-down versions of regular entrees and very good fried chicken whose big white plate comes with a thick row of potato salad atop which sit golden and juicy pieces of breast, drumstick and thigh. "Amazing Grace," rather than something from the Talking Heads, should accompany what suggests a church supper. Chicken makes more of a cameo appearance in a small potpie with a creamy filling and a flaky cap of pastry.

Desserts pale in comparison with what precedes them. Concord grapes, I discovered, are not the best way to sweeten a souffle; to me, the warm fluff tastes like Welch's jelly. Profiteroles stuffed with multiple flavors of ice cream might be better if the pastry shells weren't so tough. Close your eyes and bite into the heavily frosted apple cake, and you'd swear you were eating a Pillsbury cinnamon roll.

A drink is more my speed, and some dynamite ones are just steps away, in the separate (and moodier) Sidebar, accessed through the rear of the restaurant. Nine dollars gets you a well-made classic, but you can also upgrade. A Jack Rose made with applejack, pomegranate grenadine and fresh lime juice is a good thing. But finer still is the "Super Duper Uber Ultimate Pretentious Cocky" version crafted with Boulard X.O. Calvados. Its elegance is best shared: The cocktail costs $22.


Two stars (Good)

Jackie's, 8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-565-9700.

Open: Dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday (cafe menu only), 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Major credit cards.

Metro:Silver Spring.

Prices: Appetizers $7 to $12, entrees $16 to $28.

Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy.

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