Jack Be Nimble

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

Oddly enough, Jack Lamb, the suave, super-dapper, pocket-square-sporting, Hog-ridin’ gastropreneur—whose culinary fiefdom includes Jewel Bako, Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, and Jewel Bako Makimono—has been known to behave somewhat like a fickle schoolgirl when it comes to opening and closing restaurants.

For those who may not remember, not that anyone could, a brief, befuddling history is in order. The story begins in the spring of 2001, when Jack and his wife, Grace, open their sushi bar Jewel Bako, securing them instant fame and success. Two years later, they unveil Blue Goose, a quaint little café around the corner purveying Ceci-Cela croissants, Payard pastry, and pâté with cornichons. (A Ducasse-trained chef by the name of Allison Vines runs the kitchen.) A few months later, the Lambs unleash a raw bar and restaurant with a southern vibe called Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, spanning two tiny floors of their 5th Street townhouse. Vines makes the jump from Blue Goose to Jack’s, where she deconstructs oysters Rockefeller, barbecues lobster, and wins a Beard Rising Star Award in the process. Cut to the spring of 2004:The New York Times Magazine reports that the Blue Goose space has morphed into Degustation, a casual spot offering “French classics,” although at the time the story comes out, Degustation is a mere notion in Jack Lamb’s feverish head. Instead, the space becomes Jewel Bako Makimono, a sushi-bar spinoff. In the same piece, the Times Magazine, clearly having fallen under Gentleman Jack’s powerful spell, reports that, back on 5th Street, the space next door to Jewel Bako proper will soon become a Hong Kong–style Chinese restaurant called Sino-Room. Needless to say, it never does, becoming, instead, Jewel Bako Robata, a 22-seat bar dedicated to Japanese grilling. In short order, J.B. Robata becomes Grace’s Kalbi Bar and promptly closes. And then a few months ago, lo and behold, the name Degustation is revived—not as a French restaurant on Second Avenue but as a modern Spanish tapas bar of sorts, inhabiting, quite literally, the nearly unchanged old robata/kalbi bar on 5th Street. Befuddled yet? We did warn you.

Given that track record, who can blame the Underground Gourmet for acting like a crazed billy goat and attempting to devour everything in sight at Degustation? Anyone familiar with the machinations of Gentleman Jack Lamb, after all, might harbor a certain skepticism concerning the longevity of his latest venture du jour and approach the menu with a get-it-while-the-getting-is-good attitude. But for all his quirks, Lamb has a knack for unearthing superb talent (Vines, for one; Tatsuya Nagata, an early Jewel Bako sushi chef, for another). And at Degustation, which gives all appearance of having put down solid roots, he seems to have struck gold again.

The sixteen-seat space has seamlessly become an elegant tapas bar (or “Franco-Spanish-inspired small plates” restaurant in Lambspeak), where Wesley Genovart, a Perry St. grad who looks to be about 12, fusses over his bite-size creations in plain view of diners seated side-by-side at the food bar. With its reverential service, its frequent changes of silverware, and assorted other flourishes, this isn’t your ordinary toothpick-flying, sangría-flowing tapas bar. Genovart’s menu makes use of such currently fashionable A.W. (After Wylie) cooking techniques and ingredients as sous vide and xanthan gum. But nothing tastes forced or contrived. Flavors, for the most part, are bold and harmonious, and often so rich that the smallish portions make perfect sense.

Croquetas are a case in point. Four to an order, they’re crisply panko-crusted outside, creamy within, and mortared to the plate with a rich pimentón aïoli. You may hate menu quotations, but the Spanish “tortilla” is an innovation that works: two razor-thin slices of potato folded into tiny squares over some shallot confit and adorned with a sliver of pickled jalapeño. Pierce it, and a soft-cooked quail-egg yolk oozes out.

Two delicate soups couldn’t be more different. A fragrant mussel broth contains a single Kumamoto oyster and lightly fried artichokes, while a poached egg silkily disintegrates into a soothing chicken broth dotted with bread crumbs and bits of serrano ham. Both barely whet the appetite, paving the way for tender short-rib meat stuffed inside a squid wrapper on a bed of tangy lentils, and an ingenious open-faced roast-beef sandwich, the rare meat cooked sous vide, piled onto a rye-toast circle, and garnished with an aromatic herb salad. The plate is painted (a Genovart tendency) with a mild foie gras mayo.

With all the action going on right before your eyes and nary a bad seat in the house, it’s hard not to become distracted by a hunk of fish or a stuffed squid sizzling away on the grill, or the sight of Genovart conducting an impromptu seminar with a small huddle of assistants and servers, like a surgeon demonstrating a tricky procedure to a pack of interns.

Sometimes it’s Genovart who’s learning new tricks. Next door, the sushi masters at Jewel Bako brine and salt their mackerel, and he’s followed suit, finishing it on the grill; the toothsome result is plated with a russet swipe of chorizo-flavored sauce and matchstick apple salad. One night’s olive-oil-poached halibut matched the mackerel’s succulence; another evening, the fish wasn’t as supremely fresh.

That was an aberration, though. The pint-size kitchen is remarkably consistent, and the ingredients top-notch. Lamb loin is beautifully cooked, the slices arranged with maitake mushroom and a swirl of chlorophyll, the kitchen’s lyrical name for a spring-green parsley purée. The quail’s “Forum reduction” isn’t some Roman Empire allusion, but cooked down from a Spanish brand of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar, and the frisée salad that completes the plate is strewed with candied pistachios. (Don’t overlook the salads, by the way. Arugula, bedecked with serrano ribbons and Marcona almonds, is simple and spectacular.)

It might seem absurd to grill strawberries, but it works, the slight char contrasting with a palate-cleansing ginger granita and a eucalyptus-tea foam. Spanish cheeses, garnished with a Marcona-almond butter, were ripe and served at the perfect temperature—unlike the too-warm red wines. The list, in fact, with a single sherry, Spanish white, and Spanish red, feels inherited, and should be more tailored to Genovart’s food, which has already attracted a discerning fan club (twice, our visits coincided with the chef’s former Perry St. colleagues). The room itself has hardly changed from Degustation’s prior incarnations, but with his ambitious, elegant cooking, the talented Genovart has made the space his own.

Degustation Wine & Tasting Bar
Address: 239 E. 5th St., nr. Second Ave.; 212-979-1012
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $4 to $16.
Ideal Meal: Spanish “tortilla,” roast-beef sandwich with foie gras mayo, Spanish mackerel.
Notes: For a delicious and uncommon aperitif, try a Black Velvet (four parts champagne to one part Guinness stout), served in a giant flute.

Jack Be Nimble