My grandmother wasn't a great cook. She overcooked everything to death and absolutely refused to season with butter or salt. "You're having salt?!" she would ask, horrified, after catching one of us kids midsprinkle. I remember one Thanksgiving, when my cousins passed forbidden salt packets under the table to discreetly season the blandest turkey ever made in the continental United States. Despite the flavorless food, I miss the way all my relatives packed into my grandma's small home, decorated with farm-scene wallpaper, old-country-style furniture, and ugly floral curtains.
Biting into one of my favorite country meals, chicken fried chicken at Mason Jar Café, I got nostalgic for those holiday meals. Here at the 9-month-old restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, the foods are so tasty that no smuggling of salt packets is necessary. But it certainly has that grandma ambiance: wooden tables and chairs, autumn-colored faux-flower arrangements, and awful floral valance curtains. Where do people buy this stuff? Oh, and of course many drinks are served in actual Mason jars — especially the homebrewed iced tea.
Co-owner Paula Pace and chef Ernesto Rado previously owned Las Olas Cafe. After 20 years in business, they closed its doors for good last year due to the landlord not permitting a lease renewal. A few months later, Pace and another partner, Scott Kraft, opened Wilton Wings, a small chicken-wing and sandwich shop in Wilton Manors that is currently for sale. At the same time, Pace teamed up with Kraft and Rado on a new family-style restaurant — Mason Jar. They decided to shed the fine-dining approach they'd taken on Las Olas and instead set up shop off Federal Highway in Oakland Park with a new menu focusing on comfort food.
Our party of four examined the menu, which was divided into cutely titled sections such as "Supper's Ready" and "Eat Your Vegetables" and packed with childhood favorites like macaroni and cheese, homemade meat loaf, and sweet potato mash. My friend Brent asked for a recommendation. The smiling waiter, dressed in a casual colored-shirt-and-black-pants uniform, responded with "Oh, it's to die for!" in response to each dish we considered.
"I don't know if I can trust you — you say everything is to die for!" Brent told him.
From behind our table, a teasing voice chimed in, "Everything is only moderate at best." Each of us shifted our eyes to a slim man dressed in neatly pressed slacks and shirt standing beside a wine rack. It was manager and co-owner Kraft, who was overseeing the night's service. He came to vouch that anything on the menu would leave us happy.
In the end, we made our own selections without help — and most of us ended up pleasantly surprised. The tastiest were the starters of lightly fried green tomatoes (served with a cool pickle and yogurt sauce) and the pigs in a blanket (each $5). The pigs were mini beef sausages wrapped in homemade pastry dough, then speared with toothpicks. These pigs went beyond the hors d'oeuvres platters at neighborhood parties, kicked up with a sweet and spicy mustard sauce that had a touch of coriander spice.
After we all sampled a taste of my friend's chicken-and-dumplings soup (soup du jour, $5), we each wished we'd ordered our own bowl. The pillows of dumplings were fresh and light, topped by a velvety cream-of-chicken soup spiked with bits of celery and onion. I stole several spoonfuls. Two of us had been tempted by the menu's description of tomato soup with blue cheese and bacon. The spicy tomato purée was softened with a generous quantity of cream forming a thick, smooth texture. I personally have a high tolerance for salty foods, but everyone else found it packed with too much sodium, especially when topped with even saltier blue cheese and bacon crumbles.
Shortly after our main course arrived, my friend Kate began to pick at her dish. "I don't think I will be back," she sadly said as she pushed away the sliced apples off her walnut crusted mahi-mahi ($19). Caramelized onions and sliced fruit were too sweet against the mild fish. Kate explained that she and Brent had been big fans of Las Olas Cafe — of its elegant selections and romantic outdoor courtyard — so she was disappointed by the Mason Jar's switch to a more casual menu and family-friendly vibe. As she spoke, the seniors all around us dug into their tasty, affordable food. Kate sought solace by rummaging over to my chicken fried chicken — a juicy cutlet encrusted with crunchy seasoned batter and topped with an addictive white gravy that added pepper and a smooth finish.
I understood her gripe, but still, the rest of us enjoyed our dinners. Having come from a hard day at the office, Brent wasn't intimidated by the mammoth pot pie ($15), which cradled a hearty portion of chicken and vegetables. When he pierced the flaky pastry dough, a cloud of steam wafted to his face. He ate every bite. My date's fall-off-the-bone-tender short ribs ($20) were slow roasted with red wine and black peppercorns. The large portion paired well with crunchy Brussels sprouts, made with leaves that had been individually removed from the bulb, tossed with butter, and sprinkled with chopped pistachios.
Tempted by a large selection of salads ($8 to $11) such as buffalo shrimp mixed green salad with Gorgonzola cheese and blue cheese dressing, we also tried the Granny Smith apple and walnut salad ($9) prepared with mixed greens, spiced walnuts, crumbled Gorgonzola, and a sweet citrus vinaigrette.
Good news: All dinner options are available for lunch and vice versa. I returned one midday and was won over by an oozing, decadent grilled cheese ($8). Made with a trio of smoked Gouda, Havarti, and provolone cheeses between two buttery slices of Texas toast, this is one luxurious sandwich. As I dissected it and pulled the two halves apart, the melty cheese seeped onto the plate, displaying shades of red from a zesty sun-dried tomato spread. The cheese was overwhelmingly rich; more tomato spread and a sprinkle of herbs would have helped cut it. A pile of shoestring French fries towered over the sandwich, a whimsical presentation. They were extremely thin, though, and tasted best stuffed inside that grilled cheese.
To the right of my table, a decorative sign on the wall read: "Remember, stressed spelled backwards is desserts." It reminded me to order the lemonade pie. Similar to an Italian semi-freddo, the frozen lemon mousse was light and refreshing atop a homemade graham cracker crust.
I found solace in the comforts of Mason Jar, but anyone missing the romantic atmosphere of Las Olas Cafe might not get that same satisfying feeling. Maybe one day, Mason Jar will convert the old parking lot out back to a twinkling courtyard to appease the lovers. In the meantime, grandmas will dig it.