21 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Duck confit, homemade pasta, slow-cooked pork chop
Snacks $5-$13, entrées $18-$25
Jam Bistro began its life as a more affordable, less dressy sidecar to Eden, one of Rehoboth’s most classically posh restaurants. For Eden—as steadfast a fine dining presence at the beach as there is—providing an alternative makes sense. Eden’s semi-private booths, soothing lights and intimidating wine racks can make for a fantastic experience. Just not someplace you need to experience three times a week.
What owners Mark Hunker and Jeff McCracken needed was another Eden, only one with its tie loosened a bit.
They first opened Jam in 2010 inside the basement of the old Epworth Church on Rehoboth’s lively Baltimore Avenue. But the breezy, casual bistro vibe didn’t mesh well with the basement’s dark, supper-clubby environs, so the owners moved operations across the street into the brighter, decidedly above-ground building that was once home to the legendary Camel’s Hump restaurant. (In homage, Jam’s menu always makes room for baba ghanoush, lamb kabobs, tabbouleh and tzatziki.)
And who better to sustain Eden-level excellence in the kitchen than chef Gary Johnson, a former Eden sous chef, who worked his way up the restaurant ladder from a busboy job. His career suggests—and his menu proves—that great things often take time.
Like, say, a duck leg.
The tender, shred-apart meat spent hours bubbling in a pot of fatty elixir. The intoxicating crispy skin, the salt and fat baked into every shattering crackle. It was all there at Jam. And every extra drop of it seeped down a sautéed hash of fingerling potatoes, slivered green beans and black trumpet mushrooms. There were also hunks of pork belly. I may have heard music.
Know this about chef Johnson: The man knows his way around duck fat. His duck confit could’ve been lifted from the pages of Le Guide Culinaire, and an extra drizzle of citrusy tarragon oil pushed it to even another level.
Jam subscribes to the type of true French bistro cuisine that feels like a warm knit blanket of the culinary world—soothing, substantive. Theirs is food that has slow-cooked all afternoon until it’s practically falling apart before it ever touches a tine.
Simplicity is a friend to this particular style. And some of Jam’s more memorable dishes succeeded because they espoused simple, concise flavors and strong cooking techniques.
Like the subtle sweetness of carrot that was infused to housemade pappardelle pasta. The broad noodles’ orange color gave away the secret, but the gentle carrot flavor bounced nicely off a rich, tangy lamb ragoût. My one misgiving: ground lamb. It’s fine in meatballs, but I’d much prefer the richness and depth of some shredded shanks.
Perhaps the lamb budget that week was spent instead on gargantuan snails. The golf ball-sized mollusks (which, if they were baseball players, would be suspected of steroid abuse) arrived crispy and ensconced in a thin layer of Japanese breadcrumbs, which provided ample textural contrast for the cushiony chew of the snail. A simple red gravy provided the fragrance of garlic and Parmesan.
Snacks and small plates, like the escargot, are easy to fall in love with at Jam. Who can resist creamy edamame guacamole, when its vehicle is perfectly fat, puffy, fried-to-perfection tortilla strips? Or a generous ladle of risotto du jour when the du jour indicates house-smoked bacon chunks and handfuls of tangy Parmesan? They’re also reasonably priced (average: $9), so ordering a few to share can make a meal and lower a tab. Thursdays bring about Pasta Night, a $19 menu made up of housemade pastas dishes like pork belly carbonara, shrimp-and-andouille pappardelle, and wild mushroom farfalle.
And even $20 felt like a steal when a boulder of a pork chop landed at my table, its peak frizzled brown and deeply cauterized in crispy bliss. It hulked overtop sweet potato-marshmallow risotto and tart sautéed greens.
It’s still possible to overspend at Jam, particularly if you’re enticed by the bar’s exquisite cocktail menu, infused with its artillery of housemade liqueurs. Especially tasty were a sippable raspberry-lemonade drink derived from raspberry-infused Prosecco (which the bartenders brew like sun tea); and a sinful chocolaty martini blended with espresso, Godiva liqueur, homemade Kahlúa and vanilla vodka.
Danielle Panarello’s home-style desserts usually accompanied said cocktails, and rarely disappointed. Be they her dense and fudgy brownie flanked by toffee-flavored Rice Crispies clusters, or the rich and gooey peanut butter and jam sandwich (the only other “jam” I found on the menu, besides the complimentary chips and tomato jam salsa).
Simple is good inside Jam, with its hardwood floors, aqua walls and modular wine racks, though the space can feel a little cramped on a Saturday night. Still, the throngs of diners are what make eating out in Rehoboth so exciting. The unique and competitive nature of the beach dining scene demands the best of these chefs and restaurateurs. Jam Bistro is another solid entry in Rehoboth canon, alongside its ritzier mothership.
With a patient kitchen and an amicable staff, Jam not only loosens Eden’s tie, it undoes the top two buttons and kicks off its shoes.