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Jack’s Versus Jack’s

September 30, 2011

Many restaurants don’t last a year. Albany has one that’s been around almost a century. Jack’s Oyster House was established in 1913 when Albany was an entirely different place than it is today.

It’s a local classic.

I’m pretty sure that there is nothing I can ever say that will change the fortunes of Jack’s. Unless they start trying to sell Hormel corned beef hash from a can, Jack’s will continue to be the place where important people in the capital of New York State to do business, press the flesh, and grease the wheels of progress.

While it may look like things don’t change at Jack’s, they do. Just recently chef Larry Schepici came aboard to run the place, and put his twist on this institution’s venerable menu. Earlier this week, I was invited to a food writers’ luncheon to sample a few of the new dishes. Capitol to Capital was there too, taking pictures, as were Steve Barnes and Bill Dowd.

So what did I think?

I was really curious to see what a creative chef like Larry Schepici who has had free rein over a few of the regions top restaurants would do within the confines of this very traditional old-school seafood and steakhouse format.

If you went in for lunch, you might not even notice the difference. Fried calamari ($11.99) has been added as a starter from the seafood bar and an arugula salad ($12.99) replaces the “Hudson Farmer Quinoa Salad” ($11.99) from the previous menu. The former turkey sandwich ($9.99) has been upgraded to a turkey club ($11.99), but at the same time a cup of soup and half sandwich ($9.99) option has been added.

Two other additions are the “Chicken Pomodoro” ($13.99) and the Boston scrod, which can either be broiled or battered and fried ($14.99).

A careful examination of the menu reveals a few other minor changes. Celery was removed from the Niçoise salad, Roquefort was replaced with blue cheese in the Cobb salad, the grilled chicken wrap no longer contains sautéed mushrooms, and sweet potato fries were removed in favor of classic French fries.

Gone is the “Jumbo Lump Crabmeat Martini” with Cajun remoulade ($14.99) and that makes me happy. You know how I feel about martinis.

Of these dishes we only got to sample the calamari and the arugula salad. Calamari? I asked Chef Larry if he knew that Ruth Fantasia was no longer writing restaurant reviews. And after a few chuckles, he said that it was still a very popular dish.

It may be popular, but it wouldn’t be my pick.

This was my first visit to Jack’s. But I really think that lunch is the way to go. Their dinner prices are astronomical. Yes, dinner comes with an organic salad, seasonal fresh vegetable, chef’s starch and bread. However dinner tacks $11 onto the price of the scrod and the chicken pomodoro lunch entrées.

For lunch you could get an order of Jack’s famous 1913 recipe Manhattan clam chowder AND their signature calves liver with onion and bacon for about 10% less than the price of the least expensive dinner entrée. When winter rolls around, I’m hoping to get back in here and let my inner old man out for a warming and restorative meal. I think a better test of this restaurant is not an evaluation of their menu additions especially prepared for food writers, but rather how they prepare the dishes the kitchen has been churning out for almost a hundred years.

Most of what we sampled was from the new dinner menu, which kept twelve of the twenty-one entrées untouched from its earlier iteration. Chef Larry added eight new dishes, and tweaked “Jack’s Classic Steak Diane” to make it classic again (removing the mustard and mushrooms).

Between the “Pan Bronzed Sea Scallops” that were fennel dusted and served in an orange pink peppercorn Champagne sauce ($27.99) and the “Seafood Risotto Venezia” with shrimp and scallops atop a risotto made with a lobster tarragon stock ($32.99), I thought the scallops was the better of the two dishes. Part of this is that I have a very high bar for risotto, and I’m not entirely sure any American restaurant can pull off this dish to my satisfaction

Between the “Grilled Lamb Steak”, which was cooked a bit too long and served sliced on a surprisingly peppery lamb cabernet sauce ($35.99), and the “Pork Osso Buco”, which was coated in a rich red wine pork glacé ($25.99), the pork was the clear winner.

As much as I enjoyed the fennel-dusted scallop, I do not expect to return to Jack’s for dinner. The prices at the restaurant haven’t increased with the new menu, they have stayed the same. It’s just a very expensive restaurant. And it’s good, but not that good.

But for lunch, I’ll be back.

They are doing good things at Jack’s. Sometimes they use produce from local farms, although I was sad to learn that Chef Larry doesn’t put this information on the menu. The restaurant has walked away from Chilean Sea Bass, which is fantastic. It also warmed my heart to see the words, “First cold press” on the menu when referring to their olive oil.

Sure, I could pick nits for another 1,000 words about the food, menu, service and tableware. However at the end of the day, Jack’s is Jack’s. Like Steve Barnes and Bill Dowd, it is inextricably part of the food culture of this city. Personally, I think the “new” menu is an incremental improvement over the last one, although I could do without the calamari. And while I may not think the “Pork Osso Buco” is worth the $25.99 charged for the dish at dinner time, it’s still one of the least expensive dishes on the dinner menu.

Albany is an old city, and it’s one that respects its past and traditions. If you want a peek back in time, Jack’s is the place to go. If money is no object to you, then perhaps you’ll go for dinner and try the scallops. Thankfully, lunch is a much more reasonable way for the rest of us to get the classic Jack’s experience.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    September 30, 2011 10:41 am

    Chef Larry is at Jack’s now? Also, I never understood the fascination with Jack’s and its food. I guess it must be the ambiance or tradition of the place as you say. Also, Brown Derby, in my opinion, is another one of these types of places, totally overrated. We ate there for my brother’s birthday in February. I was definitely not wow’ed. I should have known better.

  2. September 30, 2011 11:02 am

    Love Jack’s! We went for my husband’s birthday one year and had our rehearsal dinner for our wedding (they did a great job).

    Glad they took off sweet potato fries.. I always saw that as a trend that would pass.

  3. September 30, 2011 11:22 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ll post a photo array to go with this post tonight, after indulging in leftover brisket.

    It’s difficult for me to pay a high price for something that I like but do not love. Whether it’s a sweater, a gadget, or a plate of lamb, the philosophy is the same. If I know I can get something I like as much or more for less, I just don’t want to shell it out. NPR says I need to save a zillion dollars for retirement, and I need to find that savings wherever I can.

    I’ll continue to recommend Jack’s as an upscale lunch for people celebrating…or interviewing.

  4. September 30, 2011 10:30 pm

    Went to Jack’s after my High School graduation (among many other times, this one sticks out in my mind). I had London Broil. Do they still have London Broil? I haven’t been in an unforgivably long time.

    • September 30, 2011 10:41 pm

      Just checked the easily available online menu, no more london broil…

  5. ericstraus permalink
    October 3, 2011 6:03 pm

    Hi Dan,
    How do I get invited to one of these things?? :)

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