Jacque's has a lot of the right ingredients to make a cozy, cheerful neighborhood cafe, the kind of modest bistro that Parisians (and Virginians) would treasure. But so far, the owner hasn't pulled it all together.
Jacque's is in a great location, less than a block from the Clarendon Metro. The cafe has plenty of space for a long, comfortable bar and lots of breathing room among tables. The staff is friendly, accommodating, and so easygoing that they make you feel as though you've been eating here for ages.
The menu has an interesting variety of dishes -- from club sandwiches to shrimp in mustard sauce, from omelets to chicken in lime -- at unusually reasonable prices. Where else can you get a main dish such as monk fish sauteed with wine and tomatoes, plus rice and vegetables, for under $6?
The problem, unfortunately, is the cooking: It's so uneven that eating at Jacque's can get discouraging. And it's hard to predict what's going to be good.
Jacque's makes some good, savory pastries for appetizers -- for instance, a small cheese and olive tart, almost like a tiny pizza, and a Feuillete Maison, puff pastry oozing with ham chunks and swiss cheese. These aren't delicate dishes but they're a pleasant way to start a meal, especially with a glass of good red wine.
On the other hand, mussels with garlic butter, which should be a lot simpler to prepare, have been chewy, gritty and overcooked. There's a nice selection of salads -- made from big chunks of chicken or cold raviolis or avocado stuffed with shrimp. But most of the dressings have been too heavy and tasted too much like mayonnaise. Try the much lighter Salade Nicoise, tossed with a simple vinaigrette.
We've yo-yoed on the entrees. We've enjoyed a chicken breast in a lime and green peppercorn sauce, Volaille a la Jacque's, and shrimp in a mustard cream (although both could have been cooked a bit less), but simple shish kebab and a plain hamburger have been drab. The kitchen seems to have a special affection for tomato sauces (tomato sauces on paste, tomato sauces on chicken and again on a steak), but the sauces taste flat, as though they've been made with too many dried herbs.
Our favorite dinner here, actually, has been the cheapest and the simplest: a fluffy, moist omelet sprinkled with capers, accompanied by crisp cubes of potatoes and a glass of red Cotes du Rhone. Now that really tasted like Paris. Tell the waitress if you like your eggs cooked soft, because otherwise the kitchen tends to brown (and dry) them.
Despite the drawbacks, we have hopes for Jacque's Cafe. The dining rooms, which look sort of dim, could be quite pretty if they got a brighter paint job and some new chairs (to replace the luncheonette orange ones). And the spirit at Jacque's is right. The bar is lined with bottles of interesting beer, including some of the best and hardest-to-get brands in the country, such as dark, frothy Anchor Steam Porter and our own local (almost) amber Chesapeake. We figure anybody who takes that kind of care with the beers has to be on the right track. He just needs some better help at the stove.