Open since May, The Jax is an eclectic downtown restaurant and lounge at North Limestone and Short Street. Its name reportedly is a sentimental reference to the children's game played by the owners when they were kids.
The atmosphere refuses to be quite so pointed, however, being part inspired by décor suggesting the Middle East or North Africa while carrying a definite 21st-century American vibe. Then there's the food, which runs the gamut from local to global, overseen by chef Natalie Blake, whose claims to fame include "cheftestant" on the foodie reality show Hell's Kitchen in 2011.
Despite the menu's geographic breadth, it is tight and focused, fitting on one long, skinny page. The Jax's drinks list is far longer, and whatever you pick matches the appetizer choices perfectly.
A simple nosh of sage almonds roasted with bits of fresh herbs, garlic, salt and oil is the lightest and booze-friendliest bite before a meal. If you want something more filling, try the guacamole. Although it's not equivalent to the stuff at tacquerias and food trucks, it's hard to quibble with creamy mashed avocados studded with minced onions and chopped cilantro.
Salads here are predictable, so let's just move on to the entrees, which are my personal reason for dining at The Jax.
Terrific tacos are stuffed with tangy shredded pork slow-simmered in tomatillos. These, unlike the guacamole, could compete with the best of street food, sprinkled with crumbled queso fresco, zesty lime crème fraîche, spicy radishes, bright cilantro and especially the house-pickled onions. I would have dispensed with the superfluous filler of chips and salsa and the flour tortillas and simply gone straight for corn tortillas to hold all those wonderful flavors.
If I wanted pork on something floury, I would order the excellent Havana sliders: slices of pork made tropical with pineapple, spicy with jalapeño chutney and loaded with spring greens, just like any self-respecting sandwich should be. I could eat those deep-brown brioche buns every day.
The salmon entree is called Santorini, although it's hard to say why. With sherry vinaigrette and a bourbon rub, there's nothing particularly Greek about it. Maybe I am missing something. That aside, the fish was sweetly lacquered and flaky. My favorite aspect of this dish, however, was the stack of vegetables. They were roasted to perfection: Eggplant, usually either greasy or like Styrofoam, was firm yet melted in my mouth. The zucchini sang of summer; the tomato slice was just warmed through.
Best of all, though, is the Bangkok, which is — what else? — Thai curry. Get it with shrimp. Layers of heat mingle with rich coconut milk to make a beautiful sauce over dramatic and equally delicious black rice.
The only dish that gave me pause was the drunken noodles with beef. Its watery sweet chili sauce needed more body and, although I respect the use of locally sourced pasta, a stir-frying with rice noodles would have absorbed the puddle on the plate.
Should you, after noodles and curry and seafood, still want dessert, share a generous plate of sugary plantains, served with caramel sauce and coconut whipped cream. Among desserts, it's the most faithful to The Jax's global theme.
The corner of Lime and Short has hosted many incarnations of restaurants during the past decade — Anna Belle's, Mia's, Rosetta — some better conceived than others. It might take a moment to put all the disparate aspects of The Jax concept together, but the mnemonic works if you consider its namesake: a nice way to while away the time with friends or family, but in this case made even nicer with some good drinks and an internationally inspired menu.
Address: 101 W. Short St.
Phone: (859) 721-2339
Hours: 5 p.m.-close Tue.-Sun. Closed Mon.
Other: Street parking. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Vegetarian options available. Shareables and salads, $6.50-$18.50; entrees, $11.90-$27; desserts, $4.50-$6.90. Happy hour and specials available. Check website and Facebook page for live music announcements.