The alienated everyman who strives for a more authentic life is a compelling character. Consider Lester Burnham, the "ordinary guy with nothing to lose," brought to life by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. We cheer for Lester because we admire his willingness to leave behind his materialistic life and embrace reinvention (even if that means engaging in some unsavory behavior along the way). Whether it's a dead-end relationship, a hated job or a friendship that has run its course, we've all experienced or at least longed for the joy and freedom of the perfect quit, leaving behind convention, security and stability in order to find our true path.
Jax Café, the Benton Park breakfast and lunch spot, is the manifestation of what happens when a hotshot chef has such a come-to-Jesus moment. After stints at some of St. Louis' most high-profile establishments, including the Chase Park Plaza and Monarch, chef Brian Hale realized that there was more to life than making tiny swoops of sauce on tiny plates and schmoozing with the culinary-scene elites. That something more turned out to be quality time with his family and cooking for the sheer love of it rather than as a way to garner the spotlight. Not wanting to take on another venture that would have him working the grueling day-and-night hours of the typical restaurant kitchen, Hale, with the help of business partners Gina and David Seltzer, decided to blaze a humbler path, opening a simple café that serves breakfast and lunch, and thereby allowing him to lead a more balanced life. That may sound like career suicide at a time when chefs are frequently likened to rock stars, but at the same time, it was awfully intriguing to picture what Hale might serve in a casual setting where diners sip mugs of coffee while watching SportsCenter.
The dining room at Jax Café embraces the historic charm of its Benton Park home — a former market. The tables are covered with butcher paper rather than linen and the walls are exposed brick. Our server was a sixteen-year-old girl whose mom watches her from the bar. Between the flat-screen televisions tuned to ESPN and a soundtrack that includes the likes of Fuel and Evanescence, it's easy to imagine Hale thinking, "I'm going to play the television stations and music that I want, dammit." On multiple visits, I couldn't help noticing that it just wasn't that busy. En route to my visits there at peak brunch hours, I drove past a well-established Benton Park breakfast spot with a line that stretched out of the door. It appears Jax is still too new or too tucked away, down a side street off Benton Park's main drag.
Jax Café describes its menu as "eclectic comfort food with a twist," and the hazelnut pancakes are a perfect example of this. The nuts were finely ground into the batter, infusing it with flavor but not taking away from the pancakes' fluffiness. They were thick — soft and moist on the inside and crispy on the outside from the brulee of brown sugar. Instead of maple syrup, Jax serves them with a Meyer lemon crème anglaise, which added citrus and vanilla creaminess without being too tart. These were perfection.
The smoked Benedict is a twist on the classic eggs Benedict, using smoked salmon instead of the traditional ham or bacon, and a potato leek cake instead of an English muffin. The yolk from the perfectly poached egg glazed the salmon and dripped over the potatoes, comingling with the Béarnaise to create a rich sauce for the dish (though in the absence of any detectable tarragon flavor, this was closer to a hollandaise than a traditional Béarnaise).
Our lunch visit began with an appetizer of truffle fries, heaped so high we could have canceled the rest of our order and still left full. The scent of truffle oil and freshly grated cheese wafted over to the table long before the dish arrived, and the fries were house cut and skin-on, giving them a rustic feel. The tangy shallot aioli added to the richness without being overbearing, and rosemary sea salt provided gentle aromatics. The fries could have been a bit warmer, but they did not manage to get any colder: I inhaled an embarrassingly large portion and nearly spoiled the rest of my meal.
The portion of lobster mac & cheese was so large it bordered on gratuitous, and the portion of lobster meat was surprisingly generous — we uncovered two large, intact claws and additional knuckle meat. This made it all the more disappointing, however, that the execution on this item was so flawed. Rather than forming an integrated cheesy sauce, the cream and cheese completely separated from one another, creating either bites of plain creamy pasta or large, unwieldy wads of lobster and cheese that needed a knife to cut through. This is such a shame, because the flavor was spot on.
Fortunately, the Cuban sandwich did not suffer from the same execution problems. The bread had a flaky crust that was pressed for just the right amount of time. Inside, the sandwich was overstuffed with a generous portion of sweet ham and smoked pork, which was drizzled with a creamy and tart whole-grain Dijon mustard sauce. The use of Gruyère cheese added to the tanginess as it melted over the pork. Even something simple as slicing the housemade pickle lengthwise was an appreciated detail, as it allowed for a touch of bright and refreshing vinegar in every bite.
I like Jax Café — its story, the simple, well-made food, even the gas-station charm of its conventionally brewed, air pot coffee. And what's not to love about the idea of Hale thumbing his nose at the culinary intelligentsia so that he can spend more time with his daughter? It sometimes takes real guts to quit. Here's hoping the leap pays off.