Long before farm-to-table was more rule than exception—before cauliflower and kale became gastro fetishes, before dining rooms were fixed with reclaimed-wood slabs scattered with heirloom beets and petite brussels sprouts—, Jonathan Waxman was leading the produce-driven way. From 1984 to 1989, Waxman, with wine-expert partner Melvyn Master, introduced his then-exotic brand of California cuisine —nurtured under the great Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and at Michael’s in Santa Monica—to the Upper East Side via Jams, a cabernet-fueled clubhouse with easy elegance and a killer roast chicken.
After nearly three decades—and a successful foray into rustic Italian (11-year-old Barbuto)—, Jams is back, and so is that famed chicken ($25). The beautifully browned bird’s simple adornments belie its lusciousness, with tarragon- infused compound butter dripping shamelessly from its crisp skin. It’s like worn-in denim: those comforts deepen with time.
Not all Jams holdovers are as welcome. Flaccid red-pepper pancakes nestled in corn puree and draped with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and caviar pearls ($25) can’t shake their ’80s cocktail-party quality. Better are newer offerings, like an eight-ounce “bar snack” burger fitted with farmhouse cheddar and thick-cut bacon ($21), or a summer’s-end plate of pan-seared gnocchi pillows, fresh and bright with slips of Maine lobster, wedges of yellow squash and bursting cherry tomatoes ($25).
You won’t find shockingly innovative or grandiose cooking at Jams. But what you will find is a good chef, back to his old ways.