Welcome to the Club
Not to minimize the approaching millennium and concomitant Y2K anxieties, but to me the primary significance of 1999 lies in it being the 50-year anniversary of M.F.K. Fisher's English translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. What makes this landmark 1825 treatise on the culinary arts such an interesting read is the unabashed didacticism of the self-proclaimed "Professor" as he dissects the world of dining and food through exaggerated scientific theorems and boastful anecdotal wit. The most famous of his aphorisms has been abbreviated into modern lingo as "You are what you eat," but the one that comes to mind after dining at Jackson's Four Fifty in Fort Lauderdale is this: "To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs." That's because few restaurant owners heed these words better than Jack Jackson, who has obviously learned a thing or two about pampering patrons during his 14 years as the co-proprietor, along with Burt Reynolds, of Burt & Jack's restaurant in Port Everglades.
"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.
Some people order only meat because they fear other dishes won't fill them up. These folks evidently haven't tried Jackson's thick, steaklike planks of salmon or sea bass. The salmon was saddled with raw, unseasoned, julienned zucchini and yellow squash (not the best choices for topping fish, as they add very little in the way of flavor, color, or texture) and baked in crackly phyllo dough that was slightly overcooked. Consider the phyllo and squash, collectively, as an imperfect wrapping designed only to seal in the succulence of an otherwise flawlessly prepared piece of salmon. The pan-roasted Chilean sea bass ($17) didn't need a wrapper. It was juicy, and its translucent flakes were accented with fresh thyme. Sitting atop a soothing white bean puree, it was also surrounded by swirls of basil and red pepper oils. Other enticing seafood items include herb-encrusted sea scallops in a truffle meuniere sauce, peppercorn-encrusted tuna served over balsamic-braised spinach, and olive and tarragon breaded halibut in a garlic and tomato broth. The halibut apparently sounded as good to earlier diners as it did to us; it was sold out by 8 p.m.
Entrees are a la carte, so for a full meal you'll want to select from the ten side dishes that range from simple (baked potato, asparagus with hollandaise) to sublime (wild mushroom risotto, creamy roast-garlic mashed potatoes). Make sure to order the sweet potato hash, which contained more corn than tuber but was imbued with a sultry smoked-bacon flavor that earned it the highest of accolades at our table. Fragile wisps of deep-fried spinach leaves, a dish made famous by China Grill and now popping up on local menus, are enjoyable as a novelty the first time you try them. After that you may find, as I did, that although they are served crisp and greaseless, the taste of oil overwhelms the fresh green flavor of the spinach.
Desserts were overwhelming, too. The chocolate pecan pie was a sugary-enough treat without being bathed in caramel sauce, and the Snickers terrine, with a candy-bar base topped with layers of light and dark chocolate ganache, also could have done without saucing. Even the chocolate souffle ($9.50), which was exceptional, was accompanied by chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, and a white-and-dark-chocolate-striped straw. I guess overwrought desserts are the price you pay when dining in a restaurant that tries so hard to please its customers.
I think Brillat-Savarin would have approved of Jackson's Four Fifty. As for those who see 1999 as a warm-up act for impending millennial doom, I suggest they make their New Year's Eve reservations for Jackson's right away. After all, as long as they're under its roof, they'll be well cared for.
Jackson's Four Fifty, 450 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-522-4450. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday till 11 p.m.
Rack of pork
Pan-roasted Chilean sea bass
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