Men really had it made in the '50s. You totally get the point of feminism after watching a few episodes of AMC's Mad Men, a drama following the travails of a group of Madison Avenue advertising execs and their frustrated wives, disposable mistresses, and horny secretaries. Mad Men is a fun show, twisted porn for foodies, women's fashion historians, and anybody with an interest in Mid-century modern furniture. I keep hitting the pause button to goggle at the exquisite lines of a lounge chair (or the exquisite lines of a secretary, for that matter). And I'm continually amazed at what these guys are eating and drinking.
Drinking! Every corner office comes equipped with a liquor cabinet. And boy, do they go at it. There's milk and vodka for breakfast, a shot of whiskey to gird up for a presentation with a new client, the proverbial three-martini lunch (which sometimes expands into four or five), the late-afternoon chat with the boss over a rocks glass filled with brandy, and an occasional all-night bacchanal involving raids on the office supplies of crème de menthe. As for dining out, they smoke between — hell, during — courses, admitting between puffs that while raw oysters are a new fad, they're a fad one could get used to.
After watching 12 straight hours of last season's downloads I found myself inexorably drawn to Jackson's Steakhouse, as if an unseen hand were fluttering a menu under my nose that whispered: "Shrimp cocktail." "Porterhouse steak." "Oysters on the half shell." There's a wonderful scene in Mad Men where Don Draper is having lunch with his boss Roger Sterling. Confronted with yet another plate of freshly shucked oysters and their third martini, Sterling quotes Jonathan Swift: "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster."
Responds Draper: "It's like eating a mermaid."
I wanted to hug the writer who penned that line — exactly.
There's an element of the otherworldly, the fantastic, in the taste of a good oyster: it's what gets aficionados past any initial revulsion and hurls them blissfully face down into their third or fourth dozen — and damn the consequences. Unfortunately the consequences are many: including the bacteria vibrio vulnificus, which flourishes in warm waters, Hepatitis A, and Norvovirus, any of which can lurk inside an oyster shell to sicken or kill you. The old warning to shun raw oysters during months without an R (May through August) is both true and not true these days. Farmed oysters from the West Coast can be kept at cold temperatures and force-spawned later in the year — it's safe to eat them in summer. And now a new technology has made raw Gulf oysters safe year-round, too — they're IQF'd, or "individually quick frozen" (for more on this subject see our blog at http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/shortorder/2008/08/those_fresh_oysters_are_frozen.php).
Sigh. The nostalgic frisson I was seeking at Jackson's was, like the palatability of Gulf oysters in summer, both there and not there. It's there in the "private club" Jackson's operates during the day for execs who want to lunch with clients, giving the place the sheen of exclusivity. It's there in the private lockers for wines and cigars. And in the alarmingly extensive and pricey wine list. It's not there in the luxe-gone-to-tatty furnishings, the hyper-boring menu of ye olde steak-house standbys, the nervous service and graying clientele. And certainly it's not there in the pre-frozen Gulf oysters, flavorless lump crab meat, or underseasoned steaks.
I wanted something more than I got at Jackson's. The place has been around since 1997, and when a restaurant survives that long, it's usually doing one of two things. Either it's continually updating menu, service, and bar to keep pace with the times — or, it's doing the opposite and clinging to its brilliant, original vision exactingly. Sadly, Jackson's is doing neither, and the result is as dated and dingy as your Mama's Playtex.
The menu, for example, is surprisingly reticent. It doesn't name your oysters or detail their origin (you have to ask), nor does it reveal what kind of crab meat is in the cocktail or crab-cake or whether the steaks are dry or wet aged, grass fed, organic, "all natural," grain finished, or wagyu/kobe. The steaks are "USDA Prime" and the lobster is from Maine or Australia, period. There's nary a nod to contemporary mores — no truffle oil or pink bush tomato salts, no unpronounceable spices from foreign climes, no lobster pot-pie, Kurubuta pork, or wood-fired anything — Jackson's operates in the interstices of a time warp where the garlic in a bowl of roasted mashed taters was all the exotic anybody needed. If you're hankering for sauce on your steak, a little béarnaise, toasted peppercorn, foie gras, hand-gathered morels, or gorgonzola cream — with or without the price markups — forget it.
So what does Jackson's do? How can they hope to compete with the Michael Minas and the Burt Rapoports, the Jeffrey Chodorows and the venerable old Morton's? They're not undercutting the competition — a three-pound Maine lobster goes for $75 (the price of lobster is down this year, but we're not seeing that reflected on restaurant menus) and a 16-ounce veal porterhouse is $39. A gin & tonic or a side of mushrooms is $9; a mid-low priced bottle of Oregon pinot from their list is $75 (wines range from $34 to $1000, most hovering between $70 and $150). There are many good wines by the glass, but the only rosé available by glass or bottle is a Beringer white zinfandel "blush" (yikes!) — yet another sign that Jackson's remains hopelessly out of touch.
Out of our lavish three-course meal only one totally delicious dish emerged — a side of potatoes gratin ($8) full of butter, cream, and the most delicate sliced potatoes inside, a spotted crust on top, and the exact amount of salt required. If Jackson's could turn out all its classic dishes this well I'd be happy — but there were those dry, pre-frozen oysters ($12), the lifeless bits of flat-tasting lump crabmeat with cocktail sauce ($12), a generous but overcooked and under-salted veal porterhouse chop (part tenderloin, part eye). The waitress recommended the temp for this one as "medium rare plus;" when it arrived it was bloody close to the bone and stringy further out — if any herbs had been used to season it they were undetectable and there was no natural juice on the plate. I thought back to a juicy salt-baked veal tenderloin I'd had recently at home and mourned the difference.
My pal's 22 oz. "Chicago cut" chop ($48) — a huge, bone-in ribeye cooked medium rare, was good enough to satisfy any steak lover — thickly marbled and tender, a beautiful piece of beef big enough for three meals. But I still missed the kick that takes beef to brilliant— the crunch of sea salt or peppercorns, a side of whole roasted garlic, a tomato confit, a bit of reduced wine sauce, or the dense, slightly gamey flavor of dry aging. The flavoring of everything was so minimalist I wondered if Jackson's kitchen was cooking with an eye to an aging, spice-phobic clientele. A dish of sautéed mushrooms ($9) upped the umami quotient — sliced portabellas, shiitakes, and creminis in their buttery juices. The creamed spinach ($8) needed salt.
A chocolate soufflé ($9.50, also hazelnut or Grand Marnier) should be ordered ahead if you're in a hurry, but we weren't, so we lingered a half hour or so over the rest of our wine. Jackson's does a good job with this retro dessert — a classic that feels contemporary. All that white space, those free ranging molecules of egg and chocolate: the soufflé is basically an early experiment with sugar-scented "foam" any molecular gastronomist could learn from, never cloying or heavy. And a dish of fat, sweet blackberries and strawberries with clotted cream ($8.50) was one expression of vintage simplicity that actually worked.
At the end of the first season of Mad Men, people start feeling the effects of all that butter, cream, tobacco, and gin. Sterling has two heart attacks, and Draper gets a prescription for high blood pressure. If you're going to eat pricey 22-ounce chops, summer oysters, and creamed spinach, let them be luxurious investments worth a certain calculated risk.
I'm sorry to say your odds are better elsewhere.