At JM Curley, you’ll find bubble hockey in the corner, boxes of sugar cereal stacked on a wall, and fresh-baked cookies for dessert. Embracing childhood nostalgia, this Downtown Crossing spot is a playroom for adults. And the menu lays out the clubhouse rules, under the heading “Law & Order.”
It says, in part: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s date, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor his grub, nor his cocktail, his barstool, space, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.” It requests one avoid flatulence, obnoxious cellphone use, and posting complaints online without trying to resolve them in person. It concludes: “It’s food and drink, not life and death. Don’t take yourself too seriously, we don’t.” (Well, there is one more line instructing customers what not to be, but we can’t print it.)
In fact, JM Curley takes itself just seriously enough. With executive chef Sam Mansour and sous chef Mark O’Leary (one of the people behind pop-up Guchi’s Midnight Ramen) in the kitchen, the bar and restaurant turns out well-prepared, fun-to-eat, cleverly conceptualized comfort food, influenced by locations from the South to Southeast Asia.
The dinner menu is succinct and starts with snacks. Bacon peanut brittle, served wrapped in brown paper in a tin pail, rewards with its smoky-salty-sweet crunch. Fried pickles are rarely as good as it seems they will be. Here, they are sliced into the thinnest rounds, battered and fried deep brown; they’re perfect. I’ve had great pickled eggs before, and great deviled eggs, but never at the same time. JM Curley — named with still-deeper nostalgia for longtime politician James Michael Curley — combines the two classic bar bites, piping the tangy yolk filling into firm, lightly sour whites.
A lamb chop appetizer also has double vision: The meat comes with raita, a nod to India, the yogurt sauce heavily spiked with mint, lamb’s classic accompaniment. The real surprise is the fried green tomatoes on the plate; their Southern flavor punches up the mix, an able stand-in for chutney or pickle. Served on brioche, house-cured salmon sliders with mint cream cheese, cucumber slaw, and red onion jam are tea sandwiches on steroids.
There are just a few entrees: hanger steak with blue cheese butter, a half-chicken with turkey neck gravy, and a porterhouse pork chop that is several inches thick, rosy pink, juicy, and charred on the outside, paired with apple sauce. The anchor of the regular menu is the burger, which is both just right and nothing fancy: a beefy 9-ounce patty, actually cooked to the temperature you ordered it; a toasted sesame bun; thin-sliced pickles; lightly caramelized onions; cheddar; and Russian dressing. It comes with shoestring fries or thick potato wedges.
For dessert, there are concretes, vanilla ice cream mixed with your choice of ingredients, from coconut to bacon to cookie dough to Fruity Pebbles treats. A bourbon and butter pecan version is intoxicating in every sense.
But the real interest at JM Curley occurs on the chalkboard menu, which changes weekly. It documents the fun that’s happening out of sight in the kitchen. Each week it riffs on the following: popcorn, a snack, a burger, a daily catch, PB&J, a “square meal,” and cookies.
One week, the burger comes with pimento cheese; another it’s tricked out like a banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich. (The latter is not spicy, as our server promised, and comes on a disappointingly squishy bun instead of baguette.) The daily catch might be a fried clam roll with excellent, dill-spiked tartar sauce or trout with tender collards and cornbread sweet enough for a Yankee. If you are lucky, the square meal will be the fried chicken dinner, featuring juicy light and dark meat encased in thick, nut-brown batter. The chicken is served in a brown cardboard box on a metal tray, alongside homey biscuits, coleslaw, and a paper cup of sweet tea. It’s a square meal, indeed. What puts the JM Curley stamp on it is a rainbow of sauces: honey (required for the slightly dry biscuits), buffalo, barbecue, sweet-and-sour, and one the kitchen has magically rigged to taste exactly like Cool Ranch Doritos.
Not all of these inspirations taste as good as they sound. Greek sausage one night comes with an odd version of fattoush that includes carrots; banana-butterscotch cookies are too sweet and a bit overcooked. But if something doesn’t work, it only sticks around for a week. Then the kitchen gets to play with something new.
Bar manager Kevin Mabry serves $9 and $12 cocktails, from a gin and tonic concocted with cinchona bark powder (a source of quinine) to the funky, herbal Milano Sour — Fernet, orgeat, rye, and lemon. The beer list offers 40-plus options, mainly craft brews, plus the “chef’s private stock”: Miller High Life, Colt 45, Schlitz, and more.
In the brick-lined room, the soundtrack bounces from the Cult to Blackalicious to bluegrass versions of Neil Young songs. The restaurant is very loud even at slower times. In the midst of Friday-night insanity, you must scream to be heard. Amid the din, staff member Patrick Maguire (who writes the blog Server Not Servant, encouraging mutual respect between customers and service workers) juggles plates while courteously fielding seemingly impossible-to-meet requests for tables. Drinks and food are delivered by servers who are happy and bouncy or cynical and slyly funny, both flavors welcome. (If our dinner plates one night come from the dirty pile, it’s no problem. They’re quickly whisked away and replaced with clean ones.)
The restaurant is a project from the Bina Osteria crew, which is officially doing its part to reinvigorate Downtown Crossing. Serving weekday lunch (hello, pastrami sandwich), Sunday brunch, and a late-night menu until 1:30 a.m., JM Curley is the kind of place that quickly becomes a neighborhood cornerstone and a draw — see Highland Kitchen or the Franklin Cafe. Cool without trying too hard, comfortably priced, relaxed but with a focus on hospitality, it is what every restaurant on the block wants to be.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.