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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Once and Future Jack’s

From the Kitchen Dept.: Today’s Metroland features my profile of Jack’s Oyster House, an Albany mainstay celebrating its centenary. I’ve written about the restaurant several times over the past quarter-century, beginning with my first unannounced-visit review in 1986, which you can find here. Below are my appraisals of three subsequent visits.


JACK ROSENTSTEIN OPENED his restaurant in 1913, when he was 20. It wasn’t very far from where the present Jack’s stands, and the sense you get walking into Jack’s is that it isn’t very far, sentimentally, from the old days of eighty years ago. Of course, Albany is a different place – much different – characterized by legislative-induced torpor instead of colorful rum-runners. But a tradition of hospitality endures at Jack’s, a formula so simple, so effortless to maintain that it’s astonishing how rarely you encounter it in eateries these days.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Jack’s defies business custom in another way: management has passed twice from father to son, with no dramatic changes. Brad Rosenstein, young and dapper, carries on his grandfather’s tradition. He stands at the counter by the door and greets us as if we’re old friends, tells us that our table is ready with so much pleasure in his voice that I wondered if he’d built the table himself.

The instant we were seated bread and butter appeared – a basket of Parker House rolls, in fact. The menu is prefaced with a page of specials, some drawn from inside the menu. Which, when you plunge inside, sports several pages appetizer and entrée choices, most of them seafood-oriented. Plus a large map of the Albany area with Jack’s at the center. And an essay by William Kennedy that takes up the back page, an Esquire piece from ten years ago that reminds us not only of the vanishing flavor of old Albany, but also the vanishing flavor of superior journalism.

You sit in a large room with a high ceiling, a row of chandeliers reinforcing the old-fashioned feel of the place. Share no secrets: you will be very close to the people at the next table. There are many dining rooms in Manhattan like this, especially at the old hotels that haven’t been pushed into refurbishment. But in this region it’s an exception.

American service is the watchword; not my favorite style, but Jack’s shows how it can be done. Your station waiter takes your order and serves you, and it’s only when he’s waylaid by a neighboring table when you need him that you might get itchy. As my wife observed, our waiter, a young man named Jay, made us feel as if we were the wisest menu-choice makers on Earth. Each of our selections he greeted with a murmur of adulation.

What I’m describing are simple techniques, available to any restaurant that cares to use them. In these days of corporate ownership and management by committee, however, too many front-of-house service design teams neglect the simple axiom of treating the customers like royalty. And morale needs to be very good for that to work, too; if your servers despise you and hate their jobs, the customers feel it. I suspect that a lot of people really like the Rosensteins.

Susan started with Jack’s “famous Manhattan clam chowder,” and (not surprisingly) it was good, with a heavier stock than I expected and an extremely chowdery filling. It’s just enough out of the ordinary to bear a signature. I ordered pickled herring, and was considerably surprised: you’re served a good-sized slab of fish that’s been thoroughly marinated and topped with sour cream, with a generous accompaniment of cucumber slices, both plain and dilled, and slices of onion and tomato. Each aspect of the garnish is tasty and accompanies the fish well.

“May we suggest our own Caesar salad consisting of crisp Romaine lettuce, anchovies, croutons, sprinkled with blue cheese.” So reads a menu heading, and so advised, so we ordered. May I first of all congratulate Jack’s on spelling “blue” correctly in that context? I mean, what the hell does “bleu cheese” mean other than someone in the moron brigade has gotten pretentious? Next, let me warn you that those salads are hearty and filling, especially with all that rich, tasty cheese crumbled in. Order it to follow your entrée and you’ll really appreciate it.

Have you noticed that whenever Susan gets into one of these tradition-heavy restaurants she orders liver? I teased her about it but she wouldn’t be dissuaded, and there was Jay nodding his approval. So liver it was, cooked just right (good sautée work!) and served with a topping of caramelized onions and a side of thick bacon. Not to mention crisp broccoli and a helping of (may I use this adjective again?) old-fashioned mashed potatoes, decorated with flecks of pimiento.

My brook trout was another good sautée job, an extremely tasty piece of fish enhanced with the flavors of butter and almond and a touch of cream. The meat slipped off the skin with the ease of a repentant sinner getting into heaven. On the side were a spiced pumpkin purée, boiled red cabbage and mashed potatoes.

We did not sample the oysters. I’m simply not qualified to do so. But based on the excellence of the rest of the food, I’ll trust that they’re just as good. There are no surprises on the menu: nothing the least bit nouvelle has snuck in. But Jack’s remains a bastion of the pleasant, bustling, eminently successful way that good food has been served for much of this century.

Susan finished with a chocolate cappuccino, such a guilty pleasure that it would destroy all chances at redemption for that abovementioned sinner, and a serving of terrific rice pudding. I had a slab of New York-style cheesecake and coffee. On our way out, we assured the solicitous Brad that dinner was as good as he hoped. And it’s a terrific value, too – our meal, with a half-bottle of wine as well, was $79 with a 20 percent tip.

Metroland Magazine, 24 November 1994


YOU’D THINK AFTER 86 years your building would hold no surprises. But when the mirror was yanked off the wall behind the bar at Jack’s, a mural was revealed. A panel of a mural, to be exact, because the rest of the painting circles the dining room and remains hidden behind paneling. “I was going to put a wine display there,” says chef Dale Miller, “but I don’t want to cover it up.”

It’s a charming, if faded, pastoral scene, but I’m not sure I’d want to dine in a room that’s completely surrounded by the thing. Like the old wallpaper in the upstairs rooms of my old house, it bespeaks an era of far less decorative restraint. Jack’s has been through this era – it’s been through nearly era of the century – and manages to adapt to what’s new without losing what works.

De-mirroring the back of the bar was part of a sweeping refurbishment of the dining room (other rooms, too, including the kitchen, also have been re-done) that leaves it looking as you’ve always remembered it but lighter, airier, more cheerful. Same booths and banquettes; same crowd of tables in the middle of the big room, but you don’t feel quite as oppressed there now.

Not surprisingly, Miller had a hand in the design ideas. He did so at Stone Ends, the restaurant he ran before joining the Jack’s team, and it’s good to see that he’s able to use all of his talents here, too.

I’ll confess: I was nervous about the partnership of Miller and third-generation Jack’s owner Brad Rosenstein. Both men are artists, which is a polite way of saying that both men have egos and the strong wills to support them. I stopped by for dinner not long after Miller started at Jack’s and found the same old menu, same old everything, with just a few Dale-esque specials on an inserted sheet.

“I went through so many ideas for a new menu,” says Miller, “and threw out them all. Then it came to me in the middle of the night: Two menus. The classic and the new. Jack’s 1913 and Jack’s 2000.” More slowly than he and Rosenstein expected, the changes were made, with the new menu put in place as the refurbishments eased to a finish.

With a clientele so loyal that the restaurant is busy every day of the year, nothing too drastic was sprung. But, “people who never ordered an appetizer before are trying appetizers,” says Miller. The old favorites are still there: Boston scrod, shrimp or lobster Newburg, calf’s liver, steaks. New items include American fusion ideas of chicken and pork, lamb and beef, plenty of fish. And the entrée prices are still in the $12-$20 range, except where more costly lobster intervenes.

My friend Jim and I visited on a recent Monday, arriving at eight to find the dining room almost filled. Rosenstein welcomed us – he’s one of the world’s all-time great hosts – and from that point on we were so well taken care of that it was tempting to stay all night. The menu reminds us that “at Jack’s the answer is always ‘Yes,’” which is a hearty boast but it’s an attitude that’s indispensable to a good restaurant.

Once we let our server, Seth, know that his opinions were welcome, he came up with lots of helpful advice. We’d already decided to have oysters, but he steered us to the oysters Rockefeller ($11), his own favorite.

It’s worth remembering that Jack’s and oysters still enjoy a superb relationship. And our serving of five of the cleanly shucked bivalves, each dabbed with spinach and a touch of creamy Hollandaise, was a luxurious start to the meal. There were other appetizers, both chosen from the Jack’s 2000 side of the menu.

Jim’s ragout of snails ($8) was seasoned with garlic, tomato and tarragon, an excellent combo; mushrooms added a complementary texture to the snails, and the lemon sherry beurre blanc gave it a tangy richness. Upon Seth’s recommendation, I had Maine lobster cakes ($9), presented in the style of Maryland crab cakes but with a richer flavor. Although Miller doesn’t shy away from creamy foods, he accompanied this with a sweet corn salsa that was entirely appropriate to the built-in sweetness of the lobster.

You’ll get salads with dinner, but we decided to explore the fancier offerings. Jim had a salad of roasted tomatoes with mozzarella and romaine ($5), mine was a classic Caesar, with the optional anchovies ($4). Nicely dressed; nicely served.

Everything that was promised on the plates was transcended, and nowhere more than in the entrées. Jim chose the sea bass, the thick Chilean variety, that gets a more-complicated-than-you’d-imagine preparation that involves searing it, roasting it to perfect doneness, then matching it with a port wine sauce that includes red grapes, raspberry coulis and a touch of Balsamic vinegar

After wrestling with a few alternatives, I took Seth’s recommendation once more and ordered the veal scallopine sautéed with lobster (and still only $18) and served with spinach and mushrooms with a crisp peppercorn sauce drizzled on top. Both plates were garnished with mashed potatoes (but you have a choice of several potato types, including the long-popular au gratin preparation) and ratatouille served in phyllo pastry. All of it was presented with the utmost taste – a feast for the eyes as well!

We finished with a espressos and single dessert: key lime tart brûlée, done in the classic crème brûlée style but with the familiar flavor of the Florida citrus fruit. Too sweet for me to finish, but my wife was most happy with the take-home leftover. It’s a great pleasure to see that Jack’s once again reigns supreme.

Metroland Magazine, 26 August 1999


“WELCOME HOME.” This was the greeting we received from Arnold Rosenstein as we entered Jack’s, and if it seems like sardonic graciousness – well, then you haven’t been to this restaurant lately. I certainly hadn’t – it was last reviewed here in 1994 – and was eager to see if the place has been able to maintain its very high standards.

Part of the reason for those standards is Rosenstein’s family. His father, Jack, founded the restaurant in 1913; his son, Brad, is the current owner and manager, and more often than not the person you’ll see as you enter.

“You just missed me,” Brad explained when we chatted a few days after my visit, “but my father does a great job filling in for me.” For Rosenstein, hospitality is everything, and he carries it to a degree that seems almost absurd – “At Jack’s,” the menu proclaims, “the answer is always YES!” But he’s serious about it, and the result shows both in the way you’re treated while dining there and by the fact that this restaurant has been flourishing here for over 90 years.

Jack’s scored one of the area’s biggest restaurant coups by hiring Certified Master Chef Dale Miller to helm the kitchen. Miller is one of an exclusive fraternity of the country’s finest chefs – there are fewer than a hundred in this group – and made a name for himself when he owed and ran The Stone Ends.

Taking over the kitchen at Jack’s was a tricky proposition. With what was then an 80-year heritage, a lot of customer loyalty had to be supported. And yet Miller had his own following as well, and has the talent to liven any dish he tackles.

He and Brad came up with a two-part menu that they ran for a while, separating Jack’s classic dishes from Dale’s newfangled stuff. Now they commingle on a single menu again.

“We call it Jack’s Evolution,” says Brad. “Dale has been constantly fine-tuning things, and combining the menus this way allowed us to take off some of the older items – and newer ones – that haven’t been moving well.”

They kept the calves’ liver ($18), a longtime favorite (“We go through a lot of it,” says Brad), and it tempted my wife as she scanned the bill of fare. (She and I took our common love of liver as good reason to marry; now we have a descendant who shares this taste. It’s a family thing.) The baked Atlantic cod ($18) is another old friend, and this one stirred something sentimental in Susan’s heart. She ordered it.

The fish was lightly breaded, lightly seasoned, cooked until just firm, and extremely satisfying, with fluffy mashed potatoes and a crisp vegetable compote alongside.

A well-chosen eighteen items comprise the entrées, not counting the market-priced lobster dishes. Seven of these are beef dishes, which isn’t surprising. Given the restaurant’s history as a center of the city’s political machinations, steak would be the once and future king. Black Angus shoulder is $20; a nine-ounce filet mignon is $28. If you want to splurge on the best, $40 gets you a 14-ounce dry-aged strip steak. And there’s a variety of sauces and other accompaniments for your steak.

I enjoyed the steak Diane ($26), one of Miller’s classic Stone Ends recipes, which boasts a dark, rich, brandy-enhanced cream sauce tangy with the flavor of mustard. Two tender filet mignon medallions accompany the sauce, which really is the star of the dish.

One item I’ve never ordered at Jack’s is oysters, so I made a point of it – a bluepoint of it – during this visit, easily polishing off a half-dozen ($10). I would have shared them, but my companions (liver partiality notwithstanding) turned up their noses. Clams, crabmeat, shrimp and more also can be ordered from the raw bar.

A non-French onion soup was Susan’s starter ($5), and it was an unexpectedly light concoction with lots of sweet onions unsullied by cheese and bread. A more whimsical starter is the popcorn shrimp ($10) served with what looked like cole slaw but revealed itself as a lemon-pepper aioli. The shrimp itself peeks over the top of an old-fashioned movie-theater popcorn box that’s otherwise filled with, you guessed it, popcorn. We also shared a tomato-and-mozzarella salad ($7) with terrific cheese, good (for being out of season) fruit and a perky pesto accompaniment with a couple of slices of homemade focaccia.

Sea bass, scallops and salmon are also available as entrées, along with preparations of veal, chicken and lamb. My daughter was sold on the semi-boneless half duck ($22) because of its pineapple ginger glaze, which drew out the sweetness in this crispy dish. She ignored the side of wild rice, which left it as a lunch item for me the following day.

The aged retainers who served you here a decade ago are retired; the staff is young and a little greener than before. But they lack no enthusiasm, and you feel sure right away that your comfort will be seen to.

“We’re open every day,” says Brad. “It’s a matter of principle. I don’t want customers wondering whether we’re closed on Monday, for example. To close on any day sends the message that you’re more important than your customers. Every decision that’s been made at this restaurant was made in order to serve our guests.”

Jack’s Oyster House, 42 State St., Albany, 518-465-8854, Serving daily 11:30-10, every day of the year. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 16 February 2006

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