The Best Thing I Ate This Week: St. Jack’s Oeuf En Gelée
There’s a deep lexicon of classic French dishes that are fun to talk about, fun to look at, and often fun (albeit tedious) to make, but traditionally hold deliciousness pretty low on their list of priorities. There’s chaudfroid, or “hot-cold,” a jellied sauce that’s poured hot over meats and allowed to chill, setting as a layer of aspic encasing, say, a whole chicken. And anything en croûte (pâté, meats or fish wrapped in pastry) is low-hanging fruit for ambitious chefs looking to woo diners with impressive presentations and obscure call-backs to old books and famed chefs. Cooks often get caught up in the romance of dishes like these, looking to be a devout student of the craft, and deliciousness takes a backseat to technique.
A soft-boiled egg set in a trout roe-dimpled jelly made from boiled ham really couldn’t be more set up to fall into this category. (Aspic is a key marker of “big swing” dishes that often miss.) Scanning St. Jack’s menu the other night, I knew I had to order this jellied egg, or as the French say, an oeuf en gelée. Cooking through a neo-Parisian lens, as chef John Denison does, allows for a nice mix of odes to storied French cuisine, a wash of Pacific Northwest produce, and a lighter-than-traditional touch. All of these factors seemed to coalesce in this tiny $12 starter.
It taunted me, really. I’d never eaten the dish, and, I think I’m not alone in saying that anything resembling a ‘60s-chic Jell-O salad looks cool on Instagram in a vintage-y way, but is something I’d sooner put in a coffee table book than on my dinner plate. I wanted it to tick both boxes. I wanted it to be a frozen-in-time, suspiciously sturdily-molded sculpture, and I wanted it to be delicious, though I would settle for edible.
The ingredients of this iteration had me hopeful. Denison’s version revolves around jambon persillé; you may have seen this terrine in an upscale, French-leaning butcher’s or charcuterie shop. It’s made up of cubed, boiled ham that’s chilled and set in the gelatinous cooking liquid, brightened with fistfuls of fresh herbs and a generous glug of acidic white wine. It’s the ham version of head cheese.
The Jell-O-molded egg was delicately garnished, with no detectable wobble as it hit the table. It presented as a firm, translucent dome, vividly displaying the encased eggs, herbs and ham like a science class cell model. And it sat next to a nice dot of Dijon mustard and a modest pile of sliced cornichon, hitting all the visual markers of good Frenchy-French charcuterie.
A knife cut through the center revealed a cross-section of no more than a quarter inch of aspic, a nest of sliced ham, and an oozy soft-cooked egg. The idea is to scoop everything onto the shard of butter-toasted Dos Hermanos baguette, which is softer than a traditional baguette and perfect for this application. And don’t fear the pork-flavored Jell-O. The gelée was richly flavored, but its modest quantity served really as a glue marrying the familiar/delicious ham and egg combo. (What if I told you it tasted like cold eggs Benedict?). And the gelled consistency of the ham-flavored stock somehow serves to get all the components onto the toast in one bite without registering as a Jell-O texture, but more as a sauce.
I’m working hard not to say it “melts in your mouth,” but it literally does.