Jam Pop-up's menu screams ambitions of greatness, crying from the rooftops that the people cooking this are not content to stand on someone else's line, cooking well-done steaks and mundane pastas for the hoi polloi. The collaboration between two cooks (Aaron Wilcenski and Jesse Elliott) and one wine guy (Nick Jarvis) served its third dinner a few weeks ago. At Volunteer Park Café, where these periodic meals happen, the desire to make great food was palpable. It was obvious in the (possibly too) brave menu, it sang in the voices of the chefs as they presented each dish, and it kept a nearly uncontainable smile on Jarvis' face as he poured the big, friendly wines paired with the food.
As ambition clearly drove Jam to step out of the box and plan a six-course menu, it cranked the planned dishes into overdrive. On some dishes this was wow-worthy: a Negroni Carbonara was a precise diagram of an innovative and thought-provoking dish. A sunshine-sphere of runny gin-cured duck-egg yolk awaited stirring into the pasta, which drew crisp texture and deep pork flavor from the crumbled speck (a prosciutto-esque ham product). The crowning finish was what appeared to be fish roe, but was actually spherified negroni. The dish was familiar, evoking all the best parts of spaghetti carbonara, and yet completely different from any version of the dish, making the eater wonder exactly why no one had previously paired this iconic Italian dish and cocktail? Other plates, like pillow-perfect gnocchi bathed in a splendidly rich mushroom ragout, needed the Coco Chanel rule applied: "Get dressed. Then take one thing off." The smoked chicken was unnecessary under the already strong, earthy thumb of the mushrooms, and the dry meat served only to expose execution errors. That's ambition for you, though, for better or for worse.