Casual observation suggests that a wide gender gap exists among bread-pudding enthusiasts. Women seem to be comforted by its timid taste and squishy texture, whereas men seem to be repelled by it for the same reasons, insisting that anything called pudding should look like the stuff in the plastic tubs. Yet thrifty cooks have been making bread pudding since the Middle Ages. In fact, this humble dish originated as a way of using up stale loaves. In its simplest form, its made by soaking torn slices of bread in milk and beaten eggs sweetened with sugar, perhaps tossing in a handful of currants or raisins before baking. At Jimmys Café on the Park, pastry chef Sharon Cheeks adds white-chocolate pastilles, which create delightful pockets of sweetness as they melt, and sun-dried sour cherries, chewy, shriveled morsels whose tartness brightens the puddings mild flavor. The moist, dense cube of bread into which these ingredients are baked is so eggy that it could be mistaken for French toast. Even a man might like it, if you could convince him to try it.
The cheesecake is another pleasing selection from the groaning dessert tray. It has a firm graham-cracker crust, amply filled with a cream-cheese-and-egg mixture thats whipped until its light as a mousse. The finished wedge of cheesecake is painted with curlicues of raspberry sauce and caramel. The pale-green Key-lime pie is heavier, with a consistency thats more crumbly than creamy. Its plumed with sweetened whipped cream and showered with lime zest, which revs up the pies citrus flavor. These desserts are a compelling closing statement, but the rest of the menu makes a persuasive argument as well. Jimmys has extensive lunch and dinner selections, supplemented by daily specials. On Wednesdays you can order A Taste of Jimmys, a prix-fixe sampling of seven items in four courses, for $24.95. Some specials recur each week, such as Thursdays lunch entrée of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. Others, such as paella with chorizo sausage, may be offered only occasionally. On one visit our server had a bit of trouble describing the specials and didnt seem familiar with the wine list, but on a later visit the waiter appeared to be more seasoned and quickly answered our questions.
Most of the dishes, such as the autumn-pear salad, look as lovely as they taste. Halved pear slices are arranged in a starburst around the rim of a black bowl filled with mesclun greens slicked with raspberry-Champagne vinaigrette. The salad is then topped with crumbled Gorgonzola, grated Parmesan, honeyed walnuts and sun-dried cranberries. A handsome entrée of lamb chops was perfectly grilled medium rare as requested. Three well-marbled, teardrop-shaped chops are crossed at the bone end and garnished with frizzled leeks. A square of layered root vegetables cloaked in a garlicky Gorgonzola sauce sits next to the lamb. Green beans and natty little grape tomatoes round out the plate.
Other items are prettily presented but fall short on flavor, like a blow-dried politician who fails to keep his promises after Election Day. A starter called Mushrooms Forestier, for example, consists of puff pastry cut into the shape of maple leaves, baked to a golden brown and ladled with sautéed mushrooms in a Champagne cream sauce. The plated dish is striking, but the puff pastry was room temperature and tasted stale, as though it had been baked earlier in the day at best. The tepid, flabby sauce did little to warm the pastry or conceal its lack of freshness. Another visually arresting appetizer is a platter of vegetable spring rolls, lobster dumplings and chicken potstickers. The items are arranged like the spokes of a pinwheel atop a russet sauce, with frizzled leeks once again garnishing the plate. But all three taste merely like generic fried food, with little flavor inside each packet. Only their shapes distinguish one from another. The burnished-copper sauce, laced with soy, is rather one-dimensional, with no intriguing nuances.
Despite these two fumbles, chef Regina Murphey and sous-chef Grant Twidwell excel at sauce-making, one of the hallmarks of an accomplished cook. Though sauces may look effortless, a chef must prepare them in several stages, and they have important functions in a dish. For example, a sauce affects texture, color and flavor more than any other element. It must complement the food it accompanies by highlighting natural essences, such as the drippings from a roast leg of lamb. But the sauce should also contribute contrasting flavors, such as grilled salmon with basil cream sauce. A competent saucier understands how stocks and thickeners work, uses restraint to avoid featuring too many flavors on the plate and knows how to improvise. Many of the dishes at Jimmys are embellished with deceptively complex sauces. Murpheys Southwestern-style crab cakes, for example, crisply seared disks as flat as latkes , are served in a shallow pool of cream sauce cut with the bite of jalapeños and the tang of tequila. One of several steak entrées on the dinner menu, called Steak Denwa, is a rugged dish of sirloin strips, portobello mushrooms, asparagus tips and quartered, browned new potatoes in a gutsy sauce subtly steeped in herbs and jump-started with Jack Daniels. Murphey and Twidwell even make the veal stock thats used as a base for the sauce. Finally, an Asian-inspired main course of coconut shrimp is served with a gingery dipping sauce made with three kinds of mustard and sriracha, a Thai chile-garlic paste. The dusky-orange sauce is cleverly presented in a shallow, cupcake-shaped wonton wrapper, making it look like a miniature pumpkin pie.
The food at Jimmys is appealing enough to attract a loyal constituency, but, as any campaign manager or restaurateur can attest, flattery is another good hook. The restaurants walls are hung with penciled caricatures of regular customers and local celebrities, so many of them that the room might as well be wallpapered with the drawings. This strategy of courting likely diners seems to be paying off, and culinary pundits predict that Jimmys will carry the day.