Blog post June 2010

It was sheer chance that brought me to Jackson’s in Commack on what turned out to be "barbecue night." That, I learned, is every Monday and Tuesday, when $15.95 buys you a mixed green salad and a plate heaped with two meats (the chef's choice, which varies according to the night in question) plus hand-cut fries and coleslaw.

Lucky me. Not only was the salad vibrant and fresh, but the meat – turkey meat loaf basted with barbecue sauce and pulled pork – was plentiful and delicious (note that this isn't slow-smoked barbecue in the strict sense of the term). Loved those fries, which tasted toasty and sweet.

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Going on the notion that more people want to go out for a bite than for a big-deal meal, restaurateur Art Bloom and his daughter Shelby reinvented the former Blue Oyster Grille as Jackson's, a more down-home, wallet-friendly spot.

The new concept seems to be taking off, since on weekend evenings, it's often hard to get a table. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but those who call before setting out can get their names on an advance list. I prefer dining on quieter weeknights.

Fresh tortilla chips come with a vibrant black bean dip that tastes better than it looks. The first of several visits began with barbecue beef rib tips, smoky and coated with a sauce that veered toward the sweet. Thai lettuce wraps were a huge hit, even if enfolding the wok-seared chicken and vegetables in lettuce leaves proved a bit messy. Pulled pork "sliders" translated into little buns filled with shredded barbecued pork and crisp slaw. Jackson's "4-alarm" vegetable chili was uncommonly good, a boon to vegetarians. Notable, too, was a tostada stuffed with barbecue-style shrimp and cool slivers of jicama.

One evening, when I fancied something light, I opted for the W.T. barbecue salad, which probably had more calories than I wanted to know about. Still, the contrast of hot, saucy pulled pork against cool lettuce was ingenious. A Cobb salad had all the proper ingredients -- cubes of grilled chicken, grape tomatoes, bacon, egg, avocado, Cheddar and blue cheese -- but it came already tossed, sidestepping true Cobb tradition.

Jackson's makes a thick, juicy burger, its exterior well charred and rife with beefy flavor, but it was the smoky, glazed house-made veggie burger, fashioned of brown rice and oat bran, that proved extraordinary. Both the French fries and the sweet potato fries were hand-cut and irresistible.

I thought the barbecued ribs were good, but they lagged behind the first-rate smoke-infused barbecued chicken. In the Southern manner, both dishes came with cornbread and a choice of sides. Personal favorites included creamy macaroni and cheese done with al dente pasta, fine coleslaw, and baked beans with a deep, burnt-sugar flavor.

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One night, our waiter urged us to try the Asian lacquered sea bass, a holdover from the restaurant's previous incarnation. It was good, as was a friend's filet mignon, but not nearly as impressive as the more homestyle turkey meat- loaf, a delicious, juicy 16-ounce individual loaf glazed with Heinz ketchup. Nicely cooked horseradish-crusted salmon sported a piquant topping of soft bread crumbs. Chef Harry Poole knows what he's about.

As a finale, I found the Key lime pie struck a good balance between tart and sweet. A more luxurious choice was the warm bananas Foster bread pudding with banana rum sauce and whipped cream. A real debauch, though, was Bloom's own invention, hot fudge sundae French toast, designed to be shared by two or more. Made with thick slices of batter-soaked butter-fried challah topped with bananas, hot fudge, whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, it wore a shiny red cherry on top.

A special-occasion dessert from an every-night kind of place.