Reviews: Almost Italy
James restaurant brings a new take on Italian to the Market. When I visited James during the Bella
When I visited James during the Bella Vista restaurant’s early weeks, the larder was brimming with chestnuts and mushrooms, cauliflower and kale, parsnips and celery root, heirloom apples and pears. Jim Burke, the 33-year-old owner-chef and namesake, had clearly taken the cook-by-the-season lessons to heart during a 15-month apprenticeship in Italy’s Lombardy region.
Though Burke was profoundly influenced by that experience, and by two years of working at Vetri, his approach at James is more New World than Old World. The decor puts us squarely in the now: Comfy lounge seating flanks a fireplace in the bar; the dining room’s pale neutral colors, leggy leather chairs, modern whiteware dishes and polished hardwood floor signal that veal parmesan isn’t part of the mission statement.
The house-made pastas are what James does best. There’s a hint of Vetri in the deeply delicious duck ragu, which owes its sweet-savory nuances to orange peel and bittersweet Valrhona chocolate, and in the mellower oxtail ragu, simmered with red wine and paired with stubby garganelli, a pasta that looks like flattened penne. The pecorino-dusted potato gnocchi, no bigger than a thumbnail, are light enough to float away.
But sticker shock awaits those who order a pasta or risotto as a main course, as we learned when the disappointingly loose Risotto alla Kristina appeared on our bill at $30 — pricier than most of the entrées, and a $10 jump from the listed appetizer price. The menu also needs to clarify which dishes are starters and which are larger plates.
Main-course meats and fish are prepared simply — roasted, sautéed or seared — which allows the vegetable accompaniments to shine, but some proteins were underseasoned to the point of plainness, such as the pork tenderloin and a fish special of orata fillets, also known as sea bream. I was cheered to see Burke showcasing underappreciated celery root in a gratin, and cauliflower in a curried crema with sautéed scallops. But I hope he will rethink the puree of cold-smoked potatoes that comes with the hanger steak, because they make the dish taste like a house fire. A soufflé-like chestnut cake and an airy mousse made with Samuel Smith nut brown ale are delightfully different desserts.
Kristina Burke, the general manager and wife of the chef, put together the wine list, which favors small, quality-oriented producers. The most unusual choice is Josko Gravner’s Breg Anfora, a full-bodied, golden-hued dry white wine made from a blend of grapes grown on both sides of the Italy-Slovenia border. It’s Italian, but not entirely so — much like James.
James, 824 South 8th Street, 215-629-4980; jameson8th.com.