Less than Impressed at Jack’s Oyster HouseAugust 15, 2011
*Qualifying statement – this review is based on just a few dishes, certainly not a large sampling of the menu items. But we feel our experience can be applied as an overall review of the restaurant.
The term “institution,” when applied to a business, usually refers to a place that has been around for a long time, and has remained popular and frequented by locals and visitors alike. The term can also apply to a place for people who are mentally insane. Jack’s Oyster House could certainly be called an Albany institution, potentially for both reasons. The atmosphere and history has kept Jack’s alive and kicking for nearly 100 years, but the menu choices and food preparation seem stuck in the past; Jack’s seems fearful of change, and it’s reflected in the food.
We first went to Jack’s about 5 years ago, and we recalled enjoying it very much. Perhaps that experience was due to the Executive Chef at the time, one Dale Miller, who is well-known in the area and left Jack’s in 2008 to go on to bigger and better – definitely better – things. Chef Luc Pasquier has been in charge since then, and if last Friday’s experience was an indicator, we’re not sure how much longer he’ll be around. He is a Certified Master Chef of France, but that impressive title was not exemplified by the food.
Jack’s is a beautiful restaurant – high ceilings with art-deco ornamentation and chandeliers, dark wood panels on the walls, the black and white checkered floor; it looks historic without looking “old.” You can tell a lot of big political debates and business decisions have been made over a martini or three at Jack’s over the years. We started with a couple of drinks at one of the bars – our bartender was very pleasant and managed to concoct a drink that Mrs. MHK loved. We were later seated in a roomy booth and perused the menu. Appetizers feature a few soups, along with – as you might expect – lots of oysters and clams, as well as a few dishes featuring other proteins like the foie gras slider, and a couple of salads. We opted for the sesame glazed ahi tuna in a spicy lemon garlic sauce and seaweed salad. The tuna was cooked fine, and the sauce was decent (though not spicy of course), but the seaweed salad was the best part of the dish, which is unfortunate since the tuna was supposed to be the star. But we gobbled it up and looked forward to our entrees.
One thing that made our evening a bit odd was the service; our appetizer seemed to be taking longer to arrive than it should have, and our server explained that the cook was doing all the oyster shucking and was falling behind with the other appetizers, so she brought us our salads (included with entrees) first. We appreciated that she served us something while we waited, but we were puzzled as to why they only had one person doing both oysters and appetizers on a Friday night. When our tuna finally did arrive, our server informed us that she had to snatch it quickly because the other servers were just grabbing anything they could get their hands on, since the appetizer cook was so busy. This is not something the dining public needs to know, about how chaotic the kitchen is. In fact, it lessens the whole experience knowing this.
For a menu overseen by a French Master Chef, there are very few dishes that are actually French. Other than the duck l’orange, rack of lamb, and perhaps the calves’ liver, the other items are mainly American with a few other influences, like the five different steak options, the lobster tail, the chicken schnitzel, and the wild mushroom risotto. We chose the schnitzel and the grilled lobster tail. The schnitzel bore a close resemblance to chicken parmigiana; the lightly breaded breast was topped with tomato sauce and melted Gruyere cheese. The sauce was pretty sweet, but the cheese helped cut through it a bit and the chicken was nicely cooked (though we did have to send it back because it arrived lukewarm). The lobster tail looked far more impressive than it tasted. The giant piece of crustacean was topped with breadcrumbs and served on its shell, but it was very difficult to separate the shell from the meat, and several pieces of valuable lobster were wasted by its inability to separate itself from its husk. It was slightly overcooked, but the warm butter helped it go down easy. Both entrees were served with scalloped potatoes and veggies, both of which were ok but not great.
Our server had a strange demeanor about her, and at one point decided to disclose that she was very tired because earlier that day she consumed a Reuben sandwich and two beers for lunch, and then took a 3 hour nap before coming to work. We just blinked at her, wondering what possessed her to bring up this non sequitur while we waited for our dessert.
Speaking of dessert, Jack’s offerings include, as expected, classic items that were probably on the menu 50 years ago, like crème brulee, cheesecake, lemon pie, bananas foster, and for some reason, cotton candy. If having this silly candy option is the way Jack’s wants to try and do something unexpected and “new,” they need to try harder. We went with the crème brulee and bananas foster, and like the rest of the meal, they were edible, average and unmemorable. The crème brulee had a nice crust with custard that should have been warmer, and the bananas were also on the cool side. I would like to know where Jack’s gets the vanilla ice cream served with the bananas, so I know never to go there. It was not very good, and how hard is it to mess up vanilla ice cream?
For the prices that Jack’s charges, the food should be far better than it is. Appetizers range from $10.99 to $24.99, entrees from $21.99 to $49.99, and desserts are $6.99. The portions are pretty big, but that’s not a plus when the food doesn’t excite the palate. Jack’s needs to embrace change; let this Master Chef work his magic, rather than keeping the same old items on the menu. Jack’s is an institution, but that doesn’t mean it has to be rigid and immovable. A menu overhaul is in order, and if Jack’s can move forward instead of being stuck in the past, perhaps they’ll be able to turn tables over on a Friday night instead of having just one sitting, as we observed.
The Mouse House Kitchen gives Jack’s Oyster House 2.5 out of 5 stars.