By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
"Four Fifty" refers to the address of the gray, uninviting Las Olas Center in which Jackson's is housed. But after you've entered the restaurant, the glass, brass, and burnished cherry wood of the lounge area will warm you like a generous nip of brandy -- of which you can partake while seated at the lounge's bar or in its cushy chairs. The main dining area and three side rooms (one of which is a secluded library den) seat more than 150 patrons and share the same decor as the lounge, with the addition of forest green drapes, etched-glass dividers, and still-life lithographs on the walls. It's a look that evokes the great hotel-restaurants of New York City and Chicago, which is to say it resembles the dining room of an exclusive club -- but not exclusively male. Jackson put in neon backlighting and covered the chairs in floral-patterned fabrics to soften the space and make it less masculine.
The ambiance suggests exclusivity, but the service makes you feel like an important member of the club. Our waiter, Greg, handled his chores with a self-assured professionalism, knowledgeably reciting the specials and nonchalantly attending to details such as the replenishment of breads and wines. (Incidentally, Jackson's Four Fifty has 200 wine labels from which to choose, 20 of which are sold by the glass.) Other waiters chipped in when necessary, and the entire dining-room staff was a study in seamless teamwork. Also, the seats were cozy, the lighting was subdued, the thermostat was reasonably set, and recorded jazz flowed unobtrusively through the room. After dining in a restaurant that manages to do just about everything right, you start to wonder why more places don't try the same strategy.
The menu is smart, too, favoring traditional American fare and crowd-pleasing side dishes over clever attempts at faux-New World fare. My biggest disappointment was the absence of soups; to paraphrase the Professor, a meal that begins without chowder or broth is like a beautiful woman with only one eye. So we started instead with a trio of appetizers. The potato "pancakes" with smoked salmon and caviar was actually just one chive-flecked pancake, although it was generously sized. Too generously, as it turned out; the delicate taste of the Scottish smoked salmon was lost in a density of starch. Those few bites that included a dab of sevruga caviar had better fish-to-potato balance, but I think two or three smaller, thinner pancakes would be a better idea.
The goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomato ravioli ($5.50)was also a bit of a misnomer: The three plump domes of homemade pasta possessed the two ingredients, but they were also served with wild mushrooms in a deep, delicious veal demi-glace that should have been mentioned in the menu, if only to avoid the potential wrath of a disgruntled vegetarian.
Our third appetizer, also available as an entree, was crabcake "Chesapeake" style ($9.50), which presumably means "size of a hamburger." Although it was pumped up with well-seasoned bread crumb filler, the jumbo lump crabmeat made its presence felt. Remoulade was drizzled on top of the crabcake, with macerated melon underneath; both were agreeable complements to the cake.
Main courses include two fowl dishes -- duck breast with a fruit demi-glace and chicken breast in a sherry cream sauce -- as well as a sensible selection of steaks, racks, chops, and seafood. As Jackson's places an emphasis on its prime beef, it made sense to opt for the 12-ounce New York strip. Surprisingly it was the most lackluster dish we sampled; the interior was a ruby medium-rare as ordered, and quite tender, but the exterior was tasteless. The high heat didn't produce caramelization, nor was the flavor of the grill infused into the meat; it was as if the marks on the steak were branded on for show. A thorough lack of seasoning didn't help, but it was easily remedied at the table with salt and pepper shakers. In retrospect the 20-ounce center cut of Angus prime rib or the dijon-and-rosemary-encrusted rack of lamb would have been a preferable choice.
Neither could have been much better than the rack of pork ($17), a thick, two-bone center cut offering the kind of caramelized coat that the steak lacked. A pungent cider-pepper glaze added an extra dimension of flavor, rendering salt and pepper shakers unnecessary. The pork, so soft and tender inside that it resembled something other than meat, was served with a cinnamon-tinged apple and red-onion chutney and a potato pancake similar to the one accompanying the salmon appetizer; but the density this time was compatible with the dish.