125 Harbour Drive
The capital city’s love affair with chain restaurants continues. The latest candidate for her affections is the dashing Jack Astor’s.
Conspicuously located on the St. John’s Harbourfront — next to The Keg and Legros and Motti — it’s hard to miss, especially with three-foot-tall white lettered signs (one on the front and one on the side) that spell out “Jack Astor’s.”
I’d never been to a Jack Astor’s before, but so many of you were asking me about it I felt obliged to visit.
Walking inside, the first thing that catches the ear is high volume, high-energy music with a dance beat.
The first thing that catches the eye is a large rectangular bar in the centre of the restaurant, the next is the flat screen TVs. They’re everywhere. Big ones (plus a giant one behind the bar) medium ones and small ones hung from the ceiling in a cluster, like grapes.
Booths have been installed along the perimeter of Jack Astor’s, while floor space around the bar is occupied by high tables with stools. One of the booths, the Elvis booth, features a chandelier, photos of Elvis and other things Elvis. I don’t recall seeing Presley’s favourite dish (the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich) on the menu. But I did see tray after tray of equally high-caloric food being served around the room.
Servers at Jack Astor’s are warm, bubbly, and, when they’re celebrating a customer’s birthday, loud. They gave me quite a start when four of them began their journey to a nearby table (where the victim, er, I mean birthday girl, was sitting) with some sort of tribal scream. The lead server carried a muffin stuck with a lit sparkler. It was quite the scene as this server train with its wake of yellow sparks weaved through the sea of tables.
All of the servers wore tees (it’s a very casual eatery) with groaners on the back, like “Don’t be a patio pooper” and “Is it draughty in beer? Or is it just me?” It was a tad frustrating not to be able to read what was written on most of the female servers’ backs. With the trend toward long hair these days most of the words were covered by locks. (You know, car bumper stickers drive me crazy, too. In order to get close enough to read them you have to endanger your life and the lives of others.)
Jack Astor’s offers a good selection of spirits, beer and wine. Many of the beers are from Ontario and Atlantic Canada. I tried one brewed in New Brunswick by Moosehead called Boundary Ale. It had a slightly reddish hue and good bite. Boundary also tasted mildly fruity and sweet.
Scanning the menu I noticed our provincial flag next to some of the dishes listed. Jack Astor’s serves its own versions of three Newfoundland favourites: fish and chips, the hot turkey sandwich and an appetizer take on Jiggs’ dinner called, “jigs stack.”
If you’ve ever had poutine, you’ll recognize the jigs stack as a variation on the Quebec invention. Basically, it’s a serving of fries built into layers with fried cubes of rutabaga (What? No turnip?), carrot, bits of salt meat, shreds of cooked cabbage and mozzarella cheese sprinkled in between. The stack is topped with bread dressing (with Newfoundland savoury) and a good helping of gravy.
You might expect me to say something catty and completely dismiss this dish as a mess, a culinary disaster. Well, I can’t, because I liked it. Apart from the root vegetable bits being too brown and too small, everything in this creation went well together.
Even without the excellent-tasting gravy, I think I would still have enjoyed it, sprinkled generously with vinegar. If I may, I’d suggest Jack Astor’s chef, Jason Seymour, add a few sweet mustard pickles alongside the stack. That would be a heavenly touch. (By the way, Boundary Ale and this creation were made for each other.)
Jack Astor’s guacamole is as good as you’ll find. A touch more lime (it was a little too alkaline) and garlic wouldn’t hurt and the chunks of avocado could be cut a tad smaller. The hand-cut tortilla chips were extremely fresh and crisp.
I imagine club soda and vodka in fish batter is supposed to create the same crispness as lager in batter. Vodka and soda batter is what Jack Astor’s employs.
The fresh cod is dipped in batter, rolled in panko and deep fried. The exterior was certainly crisp but next to the flesh there was a faint gluey layer tasting of flour. The cod itself was delicious. The fries were the same as the ones in my jigs stack (machine cut) but they tasted a lot better smothered in gravy.
The Bombay curry looked promising but did not deliver. It had all the elements of a good curry — correct spicing (although too mild with not enough salt), etc. — but the chicken was far too dry, unpleasantly so. It was a pity really, because had the chicken been moist and tender, this would have been an enjoyable curry with its accompaniment of creamy lime cucumber, jasmine rice and naan.
Speaking of spice, some chain restaurants definitely have a vibe (fun with lots of smiling faces and energy) that can add a little spice to life. Once in a while that ain’t a bad thing.
You’ll notice below that Jack Astor’s isn’t expensive. More important, for what you’re paying, the food is generally very good. I would visit again.
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $90 (approx.)
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of
Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells.