Smoke Jazz Club: Can A Former Ballerina Save Jazz Club Food?
Smoke Jazz Club
2751 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (b/n 105 and 106th; map); 212-864-6662; smokejazz.com
Service: Efficient, friendly, utterly respectful of the music
Setting: Small jewel of a jazz club with an in-tune Steinway piano
Compare It To: Jazz Standard
Must-Haves: Caesar salad, seafood meatballs, coq au vin, brownie sundae
Cost: Two courses, $29.95
Grade: Food, B+; Music: A
As someone who was in the jazz business for fifteen years, back in the '70s and '80s, I can unequivocally state that the food served in jazz clubs almost always sucks. It's almost as if they intentionally make the food bad to make you appreciate the music more. There have been notable exceptions over the years. In the '60s and '70s, the great jazz musicians who played the Village Vanguard knew that its founder, the late, great Max Gordon, had somebody working for him who made a mean cheeseburger. (Of course, only musicians and their friends could avail themselves of this unique jazz catering service.)
And to his credit, Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group have brought some much-needed culinary expertise to the food served downstairs at The Jazz, beneath Blue Smoke. The barbecue is solid down there, the fried chicken even better, and Jennifer Giblin's desserts are an appropriate coda to the great music.
But it's still ribs and chicken and burgers (albeit good ones) at Blue Smoke—so when I heard that Patricia Williams, a former ballerina turned serious chef, was cooking a more refined menu at Smoke Jazz Club uptown, I was intrigued. We got our thumbs and middle digits into prime finger-snapping shape and we hightailed it on up to Smoke, which turned out to be a nifty-looking jazz club in the shadow of Columbia University.
We went on Monday night, the "jam session nite" with no cover charge. Monday through Thursday, the club offers a $29.95 two-course dinner. We were seated in a corner banquette with a great view of the stage, and ate our way through much of the menu over the course of the second set.
Shortly before the Joe Farnsworth Quintet (a tight hard-charging straight-ahead group) hit the stage, our starters came.
Smoke's Caesar salad ($12) is anything but the typical tired Caesar you'd expect from a jazz club kitchen—romaine cups so fresh they practically leapt off the plate; the cheese was sharp and tangy, white anchovies lending the whole thing an incredibly briny, salty air. Equally good was a seasonal Heirloom tomato salad ($14), perfect summer tomatoes alongside a creamy, slightly tart buffalo mozzarella, enlivened by Maldon sea salt grace notes. And though we didn't know what to expect from seafood meatballs ($14), we were delighted by these shockingly light orbs of scallop, shrimp, and clams, swimming in a white wine parsley broth made with an intense shellfish stock.
The only starter that didn't swing at all was the creamy tomato soup ($9). The soup itself was undistinguished and a little dull, and not even the mini-grilled cheese crouton could rescue it.
By the time our entrees came out, both the kitchen and the band were smokin'. Black truffle coq au vin ($22), a pretentious-sounding dish in this otherwise unpretentious place, turned out to be a memorably delicious plate of food, one full of long, deep flavors: braised chicken in red wine, black truffle oil, pancetta, Yukon gold mashed potatoes. It was a cold weather dish that happened to go with the cool fall-like evening that mysteriously descended on New York last night.
A pan roasted New York strip steak ($28; $10.00 supplemental charge if ordered with prix-fixe), was perfectly cooked medium rare, as ordered, with a charred exterior crust and light red, juicy interior. And an eight-ounce organic burger ($16) had a surprising amount of beefy flavor, though it was delivered to the table well-done instead of the requested medium-rare. The only real false note: the braised, chipotle barbecue-sauced baby back ribs ($24), which would not have been out of place at other jazz clubs around the country.
All three desserts were as satisfying and straight-ahead as the band. Fresh berry shortcake (all desserts are $9) featured perfectly flaky biscuits topped with local blueberries and strawberries and vanilla whipped cream. And though the brownie sundae was the chief object of sweet desire at the Serious Eats table, a peach upside down cake disappeared almost as quickly, topped with buttermilk ice cream and peach drizzle, which tasted like peach juice cooked down to a syrup.
Care and thought even went into the chef's selection of cheeses ($14): Maytag blue from Brooklyn, Iowa, a goat gouda of unknown provenance, and a piece of Parmigiano Regggiano were augmented by soaked raisins, ginger, fig preserves, and candied hazelnuts.
Bottom line? Go to Smoke. Patricia Williams has proven that great jazz and great food are not incompatible. The music and the food are each a wonder to behold—truly a feast for the eyes, ears, and stomach.