South Florida has long been considered the test market for the initial models of theme-oriented chain-gang eateries. I'm not sure why -- perhaps because land has been traditionally cheaper and more abundant here, giving rise to the large generic shopping plazas that cater to the discretionary funds of the chain market. Or it could be the population, a combination of elderly folks with fixed incomes and families with budgets, all of whom are target customers for such reasonably priced casual-dining restaurants.
Still, I've found that Broward and Palm Beach counties, in particular, are more sanctified ground than proving ground. For every wannabe archetype that succeeds in cloning itself nationally, ten others are buried, with bad reviews as their eulogies. If I had a nickel for every restaurant I've been told was the theoretical blueprint for a chain -- well, that'd be a lot of nickels. But I have sampled some spectacular failures in my time, most notably places like New York New York, a multimillion-dollar venue on 17th Street Causeway that replicated the more famous monuments, as well as dishes, of that most famous city and went bankrupt a matter of months later. Thematically, places like this may make sense on paper. But when put into operation, they tend to fail miserably.
So it was with some trepidation that, while we were being seated, I received the news at Jake McCools Bar & Grill from our host-owner, Rick, that the informal but still somewhat classy spot was the prototype for a suggested chain. "We hope to do a few more" was close to how he worded it. Here's what I heard: "We've taken over the location of the former Pompano Beach location of the Celine Dion-backed chain Nickels, a doomed venture that declared chapter something-or-other a year or two ago. Talk about shooting Jake in the voice box."
Just to add weight to my culinary fears, Rick also confessed that "Jake McCool" was a made-up mascot. To my mind, a restaurateur's imaginary friend is usually a critic's worst enemy and a proprietor's proprietary jinx. Fabricated stories à la Iguana Mia's "Legend of Juan" or the driving eponymous personality behind Jimmy's Jerk Shack trigger something instinctual in food aficionados, along the lines of "fight or flight." I usually choose the latter as fast as I possibly can.
But several elements about Jake McCools convinced me to give it a go. For starters, the place has been completely revamped and built-out since the Dion diner-car days. Now, the surprisingly attractive eatery features a central bar with both counter and high tables, winged on either side by two generously proportioned dining rooms. Televisions are posted in the bar, but they largely can't be seen from the more subdued dining rooms, allowing for some separation between the church of dining and the state of sports fanatics. Multicolored geometric tiling on the walls and low-slung light fixtures that glow warmly are contemporary notes, up-scaling the general sports-bar feel.
Then there was the limited press I had read, which included phrases like "good food with an attitude" and "chef Robin Baronick creates all her own sauces." The honest friendliness of the staff and management, who accommodated my party by seating us immediately despite the fact that individual members were trickling in, also gave us a pleasant vibe, and the sincerity of their claims -- for instance, that the martinis are tops -- were immediately borne out by perfectly mixed Cosmopolitans and a creamy, tart, "key lime pie" cocktail that featured graham cracker crumbs on the rim of the glass. Stay for dinner? Twist my id.
Or simply feed it, with appetizers like spinach-and-artichoke dip. I usually order this familiar starter as a test, especially for places that claim their fare is homemade, because I can usually identify the pre-packaged stuff that comes from the purveyors. Unless chef Baronick has a source that is unfamiliar to my palate, I'd bet her dip is the real made-in-house thing. The lightly creamy cheese sauce, a bit looser and more appealing than the commercial brands, held the ideal amount of artichoke heart chunks and chopped spinach. It wasn't gloppy, lumpy, overly heavy, or flavored mainly with garlic, and best of all, it was served with crisp just-cooked tortilla chips.
Those same chips form a king-size platform for Jake's "ultimate nacho platter." I know that making nachos is hardly neurosurgery. But for those moments when I have a craving that needs a cure, then I trust Jake's for the remedy. Served with garnishes of diced tomatoes, black olives, red onions, pickled jalapeño slices, strips of juicy grilled chicken, and melted jack cheese, the nachos remain remarkably crunchy and sturdy and could even suffice as a meal. Throw in the sour cream for a little extra dairy and the salsa for some more vitamin C and you've got the perfect pill for what ails you.
Other appetizers, such as the "catfish tails," actually have entrée counterparts. I thought the breaded gently deep-fried nuggets of fish were delightful as an introduction, especially when dipped into piquant chili-horseradish dip. But lovers of this oft-maligned fish will be equally thrilled with the cornmeal-breaded fillet, accompanied by cole slaw and key lime-imbued tartar sauce.
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Jake McCools does fish main courses well in general -- a fillet of salmon, which requires quite a different touch from catfish, was just as worthy of notice, grilled to a touch above medium-rare. A grilled pineapple salsa added flair without the heat of chili peppers and emphasized the salmon's lack of telltale fishiness. For a little bit more zest, the entrée of guava-barbecued jumbo gulf shrimp was notable, the plump crustaceans glazed with a sweet and peppery sauce. Another shrimp preparation, the blackened shrimp and pear chutney egg rolls, also promises vibrancy, but we found the chutney overwhelmed just about everything else in this starter, including the pineapple-soy dipping sauce.
All the sauces and accompaniments do taste, however, as if they've been whipped up in house sans preservatives, right down to the addictive "firecracker" sauce that dresses fleshy Buffalo-style chicken wings as well as the ranch dressing that partners them. Even the "dijonnaise," a blend of mustard and mayonnaise that moistened a pork loin sandwich, achieved a seemingly natural balance, neither too sharp nor too creamy. Of course, it helped that the tender pork itself had been hand-crusted with a macadamia-nut mixture and then pan-fried before being placed on a soft bun with lettuce and tomatoes.
"Good food with attitude" carries over to the specials, listed on a blackboard in the foyer. That attitude is fresh. We gleaned a lovely stuffed breast of chicken, rolled around in goat cheese, and a pair of hefty cuts of prime rib, which were a little too well done but still boasted terrific meaty flavor. Even the pastas on the menu, which are often an afterthought in a grill, were thoughtfully prepared; my order of penne pesto was anything but neglected. A huge bowlful of noodles was tossed with grilled chicken, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and diced Roma tomatoes. A classic pesto was slick but not oily, robust with garlic and basil, and perfectly pungent with Parmesan.
If Jake McCools wants to trademark anything for an anticipated multi-unit launch, it should start with the bread pudding we had for dessert, a pillowy sugary sweet that had just the right firmness, like a good mattress. Or perhaps the owners should patent their politeness. Each of the three times I phoned the restaurant, twice to make reservations and once to inquire about hours, I was greeted with, "Hello, it's another beautiful day at Jake McCools." Given the genuine enthusiasm of the management and the quality of the homemade fare put out by the kitchen, all I can reply is, "May there be many more."