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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Overcast
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jacs on the block
New bistro menu aims to please the people
on

Credit:Timothy Hughes

jacs, the new restaurant that opened in the spot where Monroe Street Bistro operated for only about a year, is in some ways not so new at all. Many of the minds involved with MSB are still a part of jacs, and much has been left unchanged. I felt resistant at first, because I liked Monroe Street Bistro. It had the best pommes frites in town, a generous cone of hot, crisp, peppery fries with a side of addictive aioli. Why change?

As I sat on my stool at jacs and tasted one admirable dish after another, however, I got over my resistance because the only things I could find to change at jacs were small ones indeed.

The menu is full of tempting stuff: flatbread loaded with oozy, caramelized brie and peaches; grilled cheese sharpened by applewood-smoked bacon or Black Forest ham; and lemon pound cake with basil ice cream. Many of the favorite items from Monroe Street Bistro, including, thank goodness, the frites, have been held over. Overall, there's a greater emphasis on sandwiches and more casual fare, with less preciousness - and lower prices - than the former menu. jacs also has a selection of items for kids, a smart move in this family-centric neighborhood.

I was struck several times, in looking at my own plate and at food on its way to other diners, at the consistently impressive presentation of dishes. The salad Nicoise, topped with a generous piece of seared pink salmon, was so pretty I poked around for a while, not wishing to disturb a green cascade of capers here or a scarlet cherry tomato there. Once I scooped a little of the deep-purple olive tapenade up, though, my compunctions disappeared. My only wish was that the dressing had more mustard in it; there were so many assertive flavors in the dish that the dressing's taste evaporated before it hit my tongue. The same issue occurred with a mixed green salad. Minor tweaks would ensure a return trip for the Nicoise alone, at least on my part.

Another favorite dish was the pan-seared pork tenderloin, laid atop garlicky sautéed spinach and accompanied with red potatoes and a pureed peach marmalade. The spinach got a tad salty toward the end, but I only realized that after I'd eagerly eaten most of it. The tenderloin was cooked skillfully, the peach marmalade a worthy complement.

A standout entree was the pasta orecchiette, a vegetarian pasta dish with summer squash and tomatoes in a lemon-Chardonnay sauce. The pasta was made with cavatappi, the curly, squiggly pasta, the night I tried it. But the sauce, oh, the sauce! Lemony, with a seductive taste of wine - it was so good that after the slices of bread and the pasta were all gone, I searched the other dishes on the table to find food I could use to soak up the rest. jacs has a chicken cutlet dish with the same sauce, but I appreciated how the acid in the tomatoes and the lemon enhanced one another, allowing the sauce to be both rich and light at the same time. Gluten-free pasta is also available.

Dessert also held pleasant surprises. The lavender crème brûlée was all right, but the lemon pound cake, and especially its garnish of pale green basil ice cream, was tangy and refreshing. Basil ice cream may sound odd, but the flavors of lemon and basil, tempered with sweetness, worked beautifully together.

All in all, I liked the changes that jacs has made. The space is more cohesive and focused, with dark red walls and a few choice pieces of artwork, offering a visual balance to the often elevated noise level. The menu is varied enough to have something to please nearly anyone.

And then, of course, there are those frites.

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