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photo:Shannon DeCelle

Coming Home
By Laura Leon

Jacks Grill

Main Street, Housatonic, Mass., (413) 274-1000. Serving dinner Sun-Mon and Wed-Thu 5-9, Fri-Sat 5-10; brunch Sun 11-2. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: American comfort food

Entrée price range: $10 (spaghetti with meatballs & sausage or soy meatballs) to $21 (New York strip steak)

Ambiance: more grandma’s than Grandma’s

Full Disclosure No. 1: Several years ago, my nephew worked in the kitchen of Jacks Grill. Full Disclosure No. 2: Several years before that, this reviewer worked for the owners of Jacks Grill, at the Red Lion Inn. Full Disclosure No. 3: My siblings and their families visit Jacks fairly often, no doubt plowing through the reasonably priced, heaping platters and leaving nary a crumb behind.

When I went to Jacks Grill recently, using my married name and making no reference to any of the preceding, I was immediately struck by how things have changed in the dusty old mill town of Housatonic. The restaurant itself used to be a hardware store; the town, once the home of several wool mills, now has seemingly dozens of art galleries and studios, including a paint-your-own-pottery place just around the corner from Jacks. I’m not sure if All Saints Church, which we used to refer to as “the Polish church,” still conducts mass in that language, but on a recent Saturday afternoon, cars of parishioners ribboned the neighboring streets. A decided mix of old-time working class and gentrified transplants, but still, a quiet place to be on a Saturday night.

That said, Jacks itself was hopping. The restaurant is a high-ceilinged, airy space flanked on its side and back walls by kitsch from preceding generations: kitchen ware; fans; typewriters; board games and boxes of paper dolls; lunch boxes; stills of famous Jacks [the restaurant is named for its family owner’s patriarch, former Massachusetts Sen. Jack Fitzpatrick]; lots of china and, occasionally, an item that even my 81-year-old mother couldn’t identify. Unlike similar-minded décor at chains like T.G.I. Fridays, Bugaboo Creek, et al., the goods here are the real thing, collected by the owners, on hand more for conversation value than for anybody’s ideal of retro chic. Wooden tables and chairs are set at comfortable distances from each other, making for easy maneuvering for both wait staff and patrons just dying to figure out what exactly is that gizmo on yonder wall. A small, almost unnoticeable bar banks the back center of the room.

Our party of eight included four children ranging in age from about 3 to 14, and while the arrival of such a party often makes restaurant hostesses purse their lips and look pained, no such attitude was offered at Jacks. Indeed, there were other tykes about; but don’t get the impression that Jacks Grill is akin to Friendly’s or Chuck E. Cheese’s. The menus, printed on plain brown paper, let diners know that “we at Jacks have taken to referring to ourselves as a ‘Footloose Subsidiary of the Red Lion Inn,’ but that they’re “really all the same people acting out our food fantasies under more casual circumstances.” Riding on the waning crest of the “home cooking” phenomenon that saw pricey Manhattan eateries offering $25 mac and cheese and meat loaf garnished with truffles, Jacks keeps it real—as in real simple. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.

Although I couldn’t interest anybody in my party into trying the pigs in blankets—described as “1/2 dozen bun pups, wrapped in dough, with two mustards”—I was more successful in getting everybody to agree on several other selections from the starter list. The Berkshire bruscetta [sic] were five or six rounds of sturdy bread topped with a dicing of lusciously ripe homegrown tomatoes, fresh peppery basil, and creamy, tangy Rawson Brook goat cheese. Overall, a nice combination of flavors and textures, and—compared to the half loaf that is often presented when ordering bruschetta—a really nice portion. My worries over the crispy popcorn shrimp were completely unfounded. The typical treatment of such dish is usually nine-tenths greasy breading to one-tenth tough, fibrous shrimp. Not so here, where small yet plump and succulent shrimp were encased in a nicely golden, crisp, greaseless breading. My only gripe with the fried calamari, itself deliciously crisp and, like the shrimp, not at all greasy, was that the promised accompanying cherry peppers amounted to a mere tablespoonful of what appeared to be one, at most two, minced peppers.

Jacks offers three simple salads, including a spring vegetable house salad and a wedge of iceberg with Russian dressing, but I opted to try the Caesar salad, which proved to be a cooling, crunchy mass of romaine with a small dusting of diced tomatoes, crispy, flavorful croutons and a creamy, slightly zesty homemade dressing.

One of the neat things about the dinner menu is the Jacks Family Style option, described as “like at home—except, we do the dishes.” Any of three family-style meals—spaghetti with meatballs and sausage, pot roast, or meat loaf, each with all the fixings—feeds four people, and, priced at $32 to $34, is an exceptional value. In our party, however, we each went our own way. Entrees are simple without being simplistic: There’s Jacks Infamous Mom’s Meatloaf, which I ordered in spite of my concern as to whether it was Jack’s mother or her meatloaf that was infamous, and what that boded for my meal. Pot roast, chicken pot pie, strip steak and spaghetti and meat balls are the other comfort offerings, but to accommodate those more urban transplants, the restaurant also offers soy balls in lieu of meat, as well as grilled marinated chicken breast, an entrée-sized Caesar salad, grilled salmon, and a catch of the day, which on this visit was mahi mahi.

Excepting only the strip steak that was still mooing (medium rare had been the indicated choice) and necessitated a trip back to the kitchen, the meals were exceptionally good. My mother and husband each savored the “famous” pot roast, a nicely textured meat that was cooked slowly to the point of easy-shredding tenderness, and whose accumulated juices helped flavor the accompanying mashed potatoes, as did the simple brown gravy. My oldest son’s chicken pot pie was, in a word, homey, a large stew with chunks of white meat, carrots, celery and onions, flecked with black pepper and herbs, and topped with a flaky biscuit.

My meat loaf was a tidy little square of well-seasoned ground beef, slightly dry, but enjoyable with brown gravy. Instead of mashed on the side, I was treated to golden tater tots, which I unashamedly lapped up; less so the undercooked asparagus. My sister raved about the grilled salmon, which came with a black-bean-charred corn salsa. “The corn is freshly shucked!” she exclaimed. “Look, you can see the fresh juice from the cob,” and indeed, one could observe the milky juices of fresh local corn within the colorful mix that was her salsa.

Less satisfactory were the meals ordered from the kids’ menu (kids under 12 eat free from this menu on Wednesdays). My middle son had the chicken fingers and french fries, the latter of which he claimed were the best he ever had, but overall, the platter looked and tasted exactly the same as what the chains typically serve. The toddler had the mac and cheese, which turned out to look suspiciously like Kraft, and while I’m not averse to the occasional giving in to such a craving, I could have easily made the dish for less than a dollar at home.

The wine list offers a decent selection at modest prices, and oenophiles are advised to look to “Lincoln’s List” for a broader selection.

Desserts carry on the “just like home” theme, with Toll House cookies, chocolate pudding, ice cream, hot fudge sundae, and red Jell-o (“nervous pudding just like you remember”); slightly more sophisticated options like New York-style cheesecake, carrot cake, and pound cake with berries and whipped cream provide more balance and flavor. There are also dessert-type drinks, but for my money, the best bet is the rich, fulfilling cup of joe.

Smack-dab in the middle of a sleepy hollow, Jacks is an oasis of good cooking and homey ambiance. The service is friendly and unaffected, although the staff really should make an attempt to regularly bus the tables and avoid, say, the awkwardness of serving ice cream amid a tabletop laden with uneaten vittles, dirty dishes and empty cocktail glasses. Also, it doesn’t really matter that the waitress is cheery about fulfilling your exasperated request to refill the water glasses, when the point is that she should have noticed it earlier. Then again, if the oft-described point is to be “just like home,” then I guess it’s natural to expect some unevenness and a pile of dishes along with food you’ll really crave come colder weather, or whenever you require the spiritual warmth that, somehow, a plate of savory meat loaf and steaming mashed potatoes always seems to provide.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery’s fifth annual benefit Lobster & Steak Fest takes place from 5 to 8 PM Aug. 18 at the Picnic Pavilion in Schenectady’s Central Park. The menu includes a 20-ounce lobster or 14-ounce steak, potato, corn, beverage and dessert for $35—which drops to $30 if you buy your ticket in advance. A surf-and-turf option with both lobster and steak is available for $60 ($50 in advance). A children’s hot dog meal is $5. Participants may eat in or take out. Entertainment will be by DJ Dave Wilkinson, and there will be a Paper Bag Raffle and door prize. For info and tickets, call 377-3492, or buy advance tickets at the Open Door Book Store, Salamack’s, Marty’s True Value Hardware, or Lang’s Pharmacy. . . . The Basement Bistro is celebrating its 15th Anniversary with a special “Taste of Summer” event on Thursdays in August. Chef-owner Damon Baehrel is encouraging each patron to bring an ingredient, perhaps from a personal garden or farmer’s market, which the chef will incorporate into the menu. A portion of the proceeds from these evenings will be donated to the Wildwood School, which serves children with developmental disabilities. Cost per person is $39 (excluding beverages, tax and tip), and reservations are required. For more info, call 634-2338 or go to www.sage crestcatering. com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail: food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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