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Dream World

Many people fantasize about opening their own restaurant. Here's the story of one remarkable couple who actually did it.

Two years ago, Grace and Jack Lamb were just another fast-track couple in Manhattan. She was an executive at Tiffany who'd gone from summer jobs at the Fifth Avenue emporium to being director of "statement jewelry"--the drop-dead pieces that Holly Golightly craved. And he was a slightly manic mover who believed anything was possible--escaping from Detroit into the Army, working his way through law school as a captain at Bouley Bakery and Danube and landing a job in the mayor's office.

Some people might have been satisfied. But Grace and Jack, both 32, had other dreams. In January of 2001, Jack spied a FOR LEASE sign on the storefront opposite the house in the East Village they'd just bought. When he asked the landlord if she'd allow him to turn the former video store into a restaurant, she said, "Fine...but I don't want a lot of cooking and craziness--I don't want French, I don't want Italian, I don't want Mexican, and I don't want Chinese..." Thinking quickly, Jack asked, "Sushi?"

Done. Primed by visions of a stylish little oasis, Grace resigned from Tiffany and the Lambs used up their savings to hire an architect and renovate. The modernist facade looks slightly mysterious: The window is backed by a curtain of dark concrete suspended above a rock garden. The interior of the 30-seat restaurant is a shrine to Japanese cuisine, with a softly backlit arched bamboo wall that runs the length of the room, alongside banquettes in tea-green velvet and tables of blond wood.

Open since last May, Jewel Bako--"jewel box" in colloquial Japanese--is a mom-and-pop place, as the Lambs describe it, where they control every last detail. There are no investors, no fusion dishes, no steely-eyed maître d'--just Jack and Grace gliding from table to table, explaining the rare sakes and the $90 tasting menu. (Tasting menus aside, prices are not stratospheric; the chef's selection of sashimi or sushi is $24.) Sometimes the gliding becomes sprinting: The space is so intimate that the Lambs' house serves as coatroom, so Jack dashes across the street with overcoats and briefcases.

"We know how lucky we are--from the outside looking in, this seems easy," Grace says. "That's what we're proud of. To do this well and have people enjoy themselves...it's almost ridiculous how positive this experience has been." Of course, like their competitors, they are walking a tightrope. Most new restaurants fail in their first year, and the risks in Manhattan since September 11 are dizzying. Instead of splurging at Nobu, New Yorkers are throwing quiet dinner parties at home. Political challenges are part of the picture, too: Jack takes the Fifth when he's asked how he manages to run a restaurant and also work as an attorney in the mayor's office. And they have had issues with service, which sometimes has been glacially slow.

What they are happy to talk about is their mission--bringing authentic Japanese food to New Yorkers accustomed to bland, supersize sushi. "This is one of the world's great cuisines," says Jack, a dashing sort with black hair and Clark Kent specs, who "fell in love with the food and the culture" when he backpacked through Japan in college. "The reverence, the ceremony, the respect for ingredients--I knew there was a huge difference between the food I'd eaten in Japan and what I'd had here. And I knew it was something I wanted to explore."

Under his supervision, Jewel Bako's menu offers a stunning array of fish (up to 40 species each evening), Jack says, almost all of which are flown in from a Japanese purveyor the day after they're caught. "The fish comes out of the water and into [the chef's] hands, practically--you don't have 10 people handling it along the way," he adds. Chef Kazuo Yoshida pairs needlefish, spotted sardines, ark-shell clams and Japanese red snapper with natto (fermented soybeans), Kishu ume (pickled plums), kampyo (dried squash) and mitsuba (astringent Japanese chervil). Daily specials sound like haiku--grunt, gnomefish and pen-shell scallops; cornet fish, chutoro, kampachi, black cod. A rarity outside Japan, a soup called hamo sui is a specialty; the stock is made with bones plucked from the folds of an eel--a task that can take three hours. Word of mouth has brought visits from chefs such as Jeremiah Tower, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masaharu Morimoto (Iron Chef Japanese).

Jack has created an equally deep list of artisanal sakes, which he serves in etched-crystal cordial glasses or silver cups that belonged to Grace's grandfather. Ginkobai, a plum-flavored sake, has the rich intensity of a Sauternes; Oni No Shitaburui ("the devil's quivering tongue") honjozo is dry and bracing, with a kick; and the unfiltered Nikko Kirifuri Nigori sake is milky and has a slight fizz--"an acquired taste," Jack says brightly, "even for the Japanese."

Jack and Grace don't owe all their success to innate talent: They both have plenty of experience in running restaurants. Grace learned the ropes from her mother, who opened a bistro on Manhattan's Upper West Side after she was divorced. From the time she was 13, Grace "waited on tables, took inventory--everything." At Bouley's original place in Tribeca, Jack began as a lowly "back waiter"--training under the withering gaze of maître d' Dominique Simon: "When a couple of older ladies would peek inside the door and say, 'Is this a restaurant?' I would hear a stage whisper: 'Quick, quick, run--get them something--a piece of bread, a bit of soup.' It was my complete education in hospitality," Jack remembers.

On a clear December morning, Grace--a coolly elegant Korean American--is starting her 15-hour day at Jewel Bako. As reservationist, business manager, bookkeeper and hostess, she's working at an improvised desk in the dining area on which her cell phone, organizer, pen and keys are arranged in perfect symmetry. When she pours mineral water, it is into drinking glasses so thin they're nearly weightless. Like the handmade Japanese pottery and the Sambonet flatware,the distinctive glasses--designed for Tiffany by Elsa Peretti--are from the Lambs' private collection. Originally, they owned several dozen Peretti glasses. "Now," Grace laughs, "we're down to about six."

Stopping in before he heads to City Hall, Jack disappears into the back of the restaurant. When he returns, he is bearing a pot of fragrant tea and a ceramic serving vessel that resembles a green apple. Inside are impossibly beautiful Japanese sweets, including fragile cookies shaped like geishas. He serves the tea, then leaves again. A minute later, he is back with a small vase of flowers. "Set decoration," he murmurs.

Though one dream has become reality, Jack has other plans--to open a hotel and, later, run for mayor or Congress, maybe even president. In the meantime, he lives in the moment. "Not a day goes by that I don't think, I'm so lucky," Jack says. "I'm married to Gracie, and I live across the street from my funny little restaurant."

Michelle Green has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Two excellent sources for Japanese ingredients are www.katagiri.com and www.orientalpantry.com.

Published April 2002
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