There is no Jackson at JackSons'. Owners Andy and Dave Dalton say they named the restaurant in honor of their late father, Jack, for many years a co-owner of Thurmer's bar and grill in South City. Dave gave up his job as a tech recruiter and Andy left a management career at Walgreens to pursue their dream of running a neighborhood restaurant. The neighborhood they chose is along the rough but rebounding stretch of Manchester, across from the sprawling and nearly vacant St. Louis Marketplace shopping center just east of McCausland. To avoid awkward alliteration (remember Ruth's Chris Steak House?), Jack's sons linked the S's.
The restaurant, which occupies the site formerly held down by Corky's, has been open since February. The Daltons found a chef in Corky's alum Vince Anderson, who'd been biding his time at Truffles, and altered the menu. With its blood-red brick walls, matching pressed-tin ceiling, nonfunctioning fireplace and two-tiered dining room, JackSons' retains some of its predecessor's former ritz, though Johnny Cash on the sound system and red plastic water glasses emblazoned with the Coke logo go a long way toward toning down the ambiance. "We wanted a lighter, less elegant, more fun atmosphere," Dave Dalton explains.
Think 1940s steakhouse, especially when your salad arrives. It's a big wedge of iceberg lettuce, slathered with a creamy and mellow sun-dried-tomato dressing, chopped tomatoes and scallions and ropes of white Cheddar. Like the dressing, everything at JackSons' is made fresh, from the beer-battered onion rings to the saffron risotto to the crème brûlée. The "Crunch 'n Goo" appetizer, a plate of house-made white-Cheddar macaroni-and-cheese with flash-fried spinach, was on the bland side. Wild-mushroom lobster cakes, one of Anderson's new menu items, were plump and spicy, sautéed to a pleasant crispness. All they lacked was a forthright lobster flavor. One member of our party deemed them "mostly Midwestern" -- tasty but indistinguishable from a standard-issue crab cake.
JackSons' puts an emphasis on steaks, and the kitchen lives up to the menu's promise. A fourteen-ounce New York strip, a whopping two-inch-thick cut that was grilled first, then finished in the oven and served with a sinus-clearing horseradish butter, was superb. (Anderson will whip up a garlic-butter version on request). An eight-ounce fillet also received proper attention on the grill before being bathed in a simple demiglace of shallots and red wine. On one visit, the special was that same eight-ounce tenderloin topped with chunks of lobster claw meat and diced red pepper. The lone pork offering, two half-pound double-back chops (the crown-roast portion), was prepared and presented simply: roasted and served with the pan jus.
Such simplicity fits Anderson's culinary philosophy. "I grew up in the country, and I'm a meat-and-potatoes guy," says the chef. "I got tired of making complicated dishes with page-long recipes." Now that Anderson's liberated from the "fancy food" circuit, his entrées follow the basic formula of a protein, a starch and a vegetable. And he doesn't stint on the greens: Healthy portions of sautéed zucchini and yellow squash tossed in a tomato-and-white-wine sauce, or stalks of fresh asparagus, complement the plate. (No cutesy baby "veggies" here.) For his smashed potatoes, Anderson uses red potatoes, skins on. Among the sides, only the saffron risotto sounded a false note; it could have used more simmering to better marry the flavors.
Fish, chicken, pastas and a large selection of sandwiches fit into Anderson's overall design for an eclectic menu that makes you want to eat. There's a broiled grouper fillet (frozen but not fishy-tasting) topped with lobster butter, and salmon, also broiled, served in a balsamic-vinegar-and-orange glaze. Topping a grilled fresh swordfish special with a flavorful salsa of onion, scallions, tomatoes, red and yellow peppers and a bit of lobster meat is about as fancy as Anderson wants to get. "Chickenellie," meanwhile, is straight out of the Midwest: a boneless breast that's sautéed, smothered with a blanket of white Cheddar and mushrooms, then finished with a ladleful of a lemony, buttery white-wine sauce -- satisfying, but don't forget to take your Zocor.
The wine list is compact but sufficiently wide-ranging. Though they haven't been deleted yet, the Daltons have wisely dropped the five fruity-sweet offerings from Missouri's St. James Winery in favor of several bottles from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri. There's also a large by-the-glass contingent, as well as a specialty-drink menu of seven martinis, which keeps the bartenders busy attending to the young professionals who come for the live music on weekends.
Desserts range from a humble bowl of vanilla ice cream ($1.75) to a delicious-sounding chocolate fettuccine ($5.00), which was, alas, unavailable when we ordered it. The featured dessert, a dense, cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake courtesy of Dogtown's Sugaree Bakery, proved the most popular offering among our party. That made up for the lack of the fettuccine and for the house-made crème brûlée, which, despite a crisp-torched topping, was overcooked -- dense and rubbery, devoid of the requisite silky smoothness. Call it a sweet Crunch 'n Goo.
When my father walked away from his bar and restaurant after 35 years in the business, my first thought was to open a place of my own and bring him on as partner. Then I remembered the excruciating, hellish hours; the nerve-splitting stress of trying to gauge and anticipate customer demand; and the all-consuming commitment at the expense of nearly everything else. Judging by the hours they clock and the level of personal attention afforded each customer, the Dalton brothers are obsessed with making JackSons' successful. The food doesn't break any new ground, but that's no slight. Like father, like sons.