Jack Jones’s Italian-born grandmother, Vingencina Grieco, was cooking with infused oils all the way back in the 50s. His dad, Bill, an insurance agent in eastern Long Island, was a weekend fisherman who turned the day’s catch into delicacies such as bouillabaisse or steamed flounder stuffed with crabmeat. “He was a foodie back in the early 60s, before we knew about foodies,” says Jones.

With two successful restaurants under his belt, Jones, 42, still revels in the taste memories of his youth. You can sense his mouth watering as he reminisces. “Grandma used to make these huge meals for ten or more people every Sunday. She’d simmer whole garlic cloves in extra-virgin olive oil to flavor the oil, then remove the garlic. She’d season things with the oil–it gave them a wonderful flavor.

“She did everything by feel. I didn’t know what she did–I couldn’t duplicate it. But between dad and her I guess I always knew I wanted to work with food. When I was in college in Florida I used to cook for my friends. I was always trying to do something different–I’d make fish. I’d grill red snapper and stuff like that. Who was cooking fish in college in the early 70s? Then I transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I worked in a health-food store and I honed my vegetarian skills.”

His early experience in the restaurant business was limited to waiting tables. He worked everywhere from a TGI Friday’s in Houston to fish houses on Long Island before coming to Chicago, where he was a waiter at the Winnetka Grill. He tried trading commodities, then, learning of a new professional cooking school opening at Kendall College, he enrolled in its first class in 1985. One of his classmates was Steve Chiapetti, who now runs four highly regarded restaurants in town, including Mango and Grapes.

After graduating in 1987, Jones took on a series of jobs as a line cook and sous chef, working at Yoshi’s, Terczak’s, Oceanique in Evanston, and Spiaggia. By 1993 it was time to make the big move: he opened his first bistro, Daniel J’s on Ashland near Grace. (Daniel is his middle name.) Brother Michael, who serves as business manager, designed and rehabbed the double storefront. The restaurant quickly became a hit, and last August they opened a second spot, Jack’s, at Halsted and Belmont, on the site of the old Helmand.

Jack’s decor is a bit fancier, but the menus offer similar stylings in the same price range. It’s American bistro food–touched by ethnicities from Asian to Latino, without forgetting grandma’s Italian. Ask Jones to describe the style and you get what sounds like a mass of contradictions: “It’s simple American. Full-flavored, aggressive–but simple. There’s a nuance. I put a lot of flavor into each dish. There’s always a special taste. People always ask, ‘What is that?'”

At Jack’s we were especially impressed with a starter of cavatelli pasta with four different wild mushrooms and fresh asparagus touched by a mascarpone-truffle sauce ($6.25). Then there was chicken flavored with coconut curry, served over filmy Thai noodles hit with a spicy hot peanut sauce and cooled by a cucumber relish ($6.95). In contrast to these assertive flavors was the subtlety of seafood ravioli drenched in a creamy basil and lemon sauce ($6.95). Notable starters at Daniel J’s included thick, full-flavored baked crab cakes accompanied by apple coleslaw, jalape–o tartar sauce, and tomato-mustard coulis ($6.25), and a magnificent thin-crust duck-sausage pizza with goat cheese, onions, and tomato-basil pesto ($5.95).

Both places featured an unusual linguini with lemon zest and pepper worked in. At Jack’s it was used to bed down a mix of shellfish in a piquant tomato sauce ($16.95), while at Daniel J’s it held firm, lush soft-shell crabs seasoned with tomato pesto ($17.95). Tuna gets an Asian touch at both places: Jack’s crusts it with coriander, puts it on a bok choy pillow, and adds wasabi mashed potatoes and stir-fried veggies ($17.95); Daniel J’s sets it on seaweed salad flavored with ginger, lemongrass, and a wasabi sauce ($16.95). Jack’s dresses up its beef tenderloin–perhaps too much–with a shallot-herb bread pudding that’s almost like a stuffing, some vegetable-herb lasagna, a truffled merlot demiglace, and tomato chutney ($19.95). At Daniel J’s the grilled beef was on a leek and mushroom ragout drizzled with zinfandel-peppercorn sauce ($17.95), which better set off the beef flavor.

Both spots feature a wonderfully gooey ice-cream turtle pie with nuts, chocolate, and caramel sauces, as well as Jones’s really rich bread pudding with caramel sauce (all $5).

Jack’s, 3201 N. Halsted, is open for dinner every day; call 773-244-9191. Daniel J’s, 3811 N. Ashland, is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Call 773-404-7772. –Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jack Jones photo by Eugene Zakusilo.