It was exactly what I wasn't expecting: upscale cuisine in the basement of the old jailhouse in downtown Visalia. A huge array of surprisingly sophisticated little plates. Wow.
At eight pm on a Sunday night downtown is hardly hopping, so we were able to find parking right in front of the front door (marked by the English- style phone booth, which this time of the year, at least, is gaily bedecked in lights.) We walked downstairs to the first of two doors, feeling a bit like we needed to give a password to get in, so we were surprised to find the extremely spacious property virtually empty. We were led to a plush booth decked out with wine linen and wine glasses, asked our choice of water and presented our menus. The choices were staggering: macaroni and cheese? Caviar? Tartar of salmon with caviar toast? Sea urchin? Well over a dozen choices faced us, plus about ten artisan cheeses, salads and soups. The entrees sounded equally promising: besides the prerequisite steak, there was lamb, muscovy duck breast and pancetta wrapped quail, offering thoughtful and artistic preparations and paired with local produce. And it all sounded wonderful.
As if this already weren't a great deal to choose from, the restaurant presents you the additional option of three, four or five course prix fixe tasting menus each night. In lieu of stuffing ourselves to the gills, we opted to share four small plates and a bottle of moscofilero, a fragrant white wine we usually only see at Greek restaurants. Salmon tartar and salmon roe on toast were enjoyable; the maitake mushroom toast served with an addictive creamy sauce I had to resist licking off the plate. Macaroni and cheese lived up to the build-up it was given in previous reviews: hot, creamy and satisfying with the crunchy topping and its mixture of local cheeses, but to my palate, the topping was a bit salty. And don't ask me why, but for some inexplicable reason two non-brussels sprouts people zoned in on the brussels sprouts, a tangy mixture which included sriracha, lemon, capers and almonds. The fact that we cleaned the platter lays testimony to how good the dish was. And did I mention their bread is wonderful? We never did make it to dessert as the four small plates, bread and wine had us happily content-- so dessert will have to wait for another occasion.
While we enjoyed our food, do be aware that the kitchen tends to be a bit heavy-handed with pepper. I like pepper, so that's not an issue for me, but since I know there are folks out there who don't, take note.
I've noticed a number comments about the lack of service. While I will admit things were slow, I guess it's a matter of perception. If food is the star of a night out at a restaurant for you, you're going to be more cognizant of the service and the time spent waiting. If, on the other hand, an evening out is more about relaxation, slowing your pace, enjoying your company, conversation and your surroundings, the speed of the meal becomes less important. So yes, I will concede there were perceptible dot-dot-dots between visits from our server, but for us, the slow pace was perfect. We sipped our water-- and later our wine-- kicked back, chatted a bit with the bartender (as I mentioned, things were exceedingly slow that night, so he came over to see if we were happy), and each time our server dropped by, she'd converse with us as well. She managed to successfully merge a low key professional demeanor with her innate warmth and charm, and we were glad to have gotten the opportunity to chat with her a bit. Oh, and she DID warn us not to touch the handles of the serving dish containing the macaroni and cheese, just in case anyone happened to wonder.
I'm not sure when we'll be back in Visalia the next time, but when we do Jack and Charlie's will definitely be part of the agenda. I've had good meals and just okay meals in Visalia before; but this one was truly one that was memorable. A big thumbs up