Another month, another Jose Garces restaurant. They open faster than diners can keep track. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone draw a blank on the Garces Trading Company, I could buy a week’s worth of lunches from Guapos Tacos, the food truck Garces debuted in September. Or roughly five ounces of trapped-in-the-wilds-of-Texas boar from his ambitious new flagship, JG Domestic.
Garces has recast the Cira Centre lobby around an open kitchen with an uncharacteristically fluid mandate: to cook any food at all, as long as it’s produced in America. In some ways, JG Domestic is the logical end of its namesake’s culinary progression. The chef has taken the tapas conceit further from its Spanish roots in the past few years, and his food interests have shifted, too. But it’s also a risky departure from the tight conceptual focus that characterizes his most compelling restaurants — such as the inch-wide-but-mile-deep excavation of Basque cuisine at Tinto.
Shuttling small plates past wooden shelves brimming with frontier-homestead bric-a-brac and potted plants, JG’s pert servers take every opportunity to trumpet the restaurant’s self-imposed restriction to domestically produced ingredients. That’s not much of a limitation in a country that has more arable land than any other, and Garces makes the most of his carte blanche.
Chef de cuisine Dave Conn has been with Gar-ces since the beginning, ascending from line cook at Amada to senior positions at Tinto and Village Whiskey, and it shows; Conn channels his boss’s yen for sharply defined flavors that don’t so much meld as crackle with contrasts. There have been shaved sunchokes with briny olives, winey currants, and preserved Meyer lemons as bright as bottled sunshine. Popcorn under a cheddar-flecked snow of grated horseradish. Heirloom fingerling potatoes ensconced in addictively sweet-sour braised cabbage, beneath a savory cheese melt studded with andouille.
There are equally vivid meat offerings, but none better than that wild boar rib chop. The dark flesh has a feral, backwoods punch as haunting as the evil in Deliverance, yet also a sweetness — the meat is as close to feedlot pork as venison is to a chicken breast. Even lacquered with a mustard glaze and framed by a cluster of peppery mustard greens and pickled mustard seeds, the boar’s flavor remained dominant. Add a smallish side portion of superlatively corny Anson Mills grits, and this is an entrée no carnivore should miss.
Only, there’s just not enough of it to lose yourself in, and this is one way JG Domestic undershoots its potential. JG’s servers say the words “family-style” like they get paid by the hyphen, but that’s a misnomer — as is calling a single rib chop a “rack” on the menu. Portion size isn’t a problem with the snacks and most of the supporting items; the potted duck packs enough spreadable confit under layers of foie gras mousse and orange gelée to send four tongues to fat heaven. And my mushrooms were a fair cluster, with enough polenta to soak up the accompanying brandy cream. But $25 for maybe four ounces of striped bass perched in a two-tone puddle of runny pork sauce and pureed salsify? Even cut from a 15-pound deepwater specimen whose texture was halfway to halibut, it was most memorable for how much it left to be desired.
Conceptual inconsistencies also dogged my meals here (as did painfully slow dinner pacing, though lunch-hour service is brisk). JG covers a wide swath of American foodways, and they don’t always cohere. On one hand, you’ve got a mock-lowbrow house-made Slim Jim, and a wood-oven flatbread topped with legitimately lowbrow (and unpleasant) cheddar grease. On the other, a fussy $14 spinach salad — red-veined leaves from the Lake Erie littoral, garnished with Pacific Northwest huckleberries and Iowa’s La Quercia prosciutto, arranged in a fastidious, single-file stack the height of a matchbook — that could be titled The Unbearable Preciousness of Haute Eating. Occasionally, the clash surfaced in a single dish, like a smoked chestnut and spaghetti squash soufflé — doused with an overbearing butter-maple syrup emulsion.
Syrupy sweetness works better at dessert, where butterscotch is blended with bourbon to make a blockbuster dipping sauce for flawless beignets. And poached pears astride a whipped mound of marjoram sabayon show that the pastry kitchen can dial up the seasons with inspired inventiveness.
The restaurant as a whole hit that mark a few times in each of my dinners, which is no small feat. But I hope the kitchen finds a way to craft meals that are more a journey and less a pastiche. If it does, JG Domestic has the potential to be not just another Garces production, but his signature one.