Mighty Fine Might Be Stretching It
A new restaurant in Reston needs some work to live up to its name
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009; Page W23
The Great American Restaurants company, which recently opened its 10th eatery in Northern Virginia, is deservedly admired for getting a lot right. Passionate service is one of its signatures. Good value is another.
Meanwhile, each member of the tribe cooks up something wonderful. Regulars flock to Artie's in Fairfax for its crab cakes and prime rib. Habitues of Sweetwater Tavern, with three locations in the area, know they can count on a frosted mug for the house-made brews. Coastal Flats in McLean and Fairfax specializes in zesty rock shrimp fritters and a dynamite Key lime-roasted chicken.
So the sushi rolls come as a surprise. But there they are, on the otherwise very American menu at Jackson's Mighty Fine Food & Lucky Lounge in Reston. Launched in September, the restaurant pays homage to the veteran executive chef at the restaurant group, Bill Jackson, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease last year.
My visits to Jackson's all begin on a high, with a chorus line of young hostesses to greet me and a busy bar to bide my time in; like its siblings, the restaurant doesn't take reservations but instead employs a "call-ahead" policy in which customers can put their names on a list as they head for the restaurant and receive priority seating once they've arrived.
There turn out to be two bars here, one wrapped in glass and facing the street, for smokers, and another one overlooking the cavernous dining room. That room's Oklahoma vastness is made cozy with rows of red faux-leather booths and interesting art deco flourishes; what's not brick or glass or mirror is gleaming open kitchen. To the right of the hustling army of cooks is a large mural that inserts a likeness of the late Jackson watching over the cast of "The Little Rascals," everyone gathered in a restaurant. (The chef was a fan of the comedies.)
Neat touches abound. The shaded table lamps add warmth to this barn of a dining room, and the coat hooks on the posts between the booths mean you don't have to sit on your wrap for the duration of a meal. Every new parent's dream: One of the three restrooms is outfitted with a changing table. It's labeled "theirs." Not so swell: The clamor produced by a full house is akin to that of urban traffic.
But noise pollution isn't Jackson's biggest problem; a surprising amount of the cooking here is inconsistent by Great American Restaurants standards. I wish I could cheer Jackson's for its Asian innovations, for instance, but the kitchen's frequently cold and heavy-handed rolls won't let me. They seem out of place, like classical music at a truck stop. And did anyone on the staff preview the "Two Cool Dips" before they went public? The big scoops of guacamole and red pepper-and-cheese are so dense, no chip has a chance of staying intact.
One evening, almost everything four of us ordered was too sweet. "Sweet and spicy" calamari emphasized the former over the latter, and steamed sea bass was awash in an Asian-accented sauce marred by sugary excess. A fun idea, the duck burger resting on a superior bun (from Best Buns Bread Co. in Shirlington, another company holding), included hoisin-marinated mushrooms that overwhelmed the patty with -- guess what? Was the pastry chef leading the charge that night? By the time the entrees were cleared, no one had an appetite for more sugar.
I have no beef with the meat here. Jackson's grills a fine hamburger, and its slab of prime rib gets a verbal round of applause from the carnivores at the table. Like the prime rib at Artie's in Fairfax, this one comes with a bit of fat for flavor, plenty of juice and a robust beefiness.
This diner would prefer to see fewer dishes like the overcooked swordfish in a wan fennel broth and more entrees like the grilled grouper. Both were billed as specials on different nights, but only the latter caught my interest. The grouper was cooked just so, and it showed up with cumin-scented black beans, a base of crisp tortillas and a slaw made jazzy with cilantro and lime: a kaleidoscope of color and texture.
The kitchen puts delicious thought into its side dishes, some of which also grace entrees. Jackson's herbed grilled chicken is a satisfying plate that's greatly enhanced by an almond- and grape-laced salad of wild rice. Similarly, the hanger steak comes with stellar hand-sliced french fries that go faster than the meat. Too creamy for my taste, Jackson's abundant lobster roll gets a smoky piece of sweet corn, husk included. It might be winter, but the corn smacked of summer.
Those hostesses aren't the only members of the staff who will impress you. The servers are bright and engaging, useful for recommendations and quick to clear dirty plates; most of them are good arguments in support of human cloning. Managers seem to be everywhere, identifiable by their walkie-talkies and earpieces as much as their megawatt smiles. When we complained about getting our entrees on top of our appetizers at one dinner, a supervisor pressed gift certificates into our hands. "We don't advertise, so word of mouth is important to us," he apologized. We declined his generous offer (my partner in crime and I were both presented with discounts), but we appreciated the time he took to hear us out. Just by listening, the manager unruffled a few feathers.
Crowd-pleasers, or what read like them, dominate the dessert menu, which includes an ultra-moist white chocolate-cherry bread pudding and a lofty lemon meringue pie that looks straight out of Betty Crocker's kitchen but turns in a cloying performance. Jackson's carrot cake, on the other hand, is everything you want from that American classic, with just the right proportion of nuts to cake to spice to frosting. The dessert is served in a gigantic wedge that is enough for four to share but is all too easy for a couple to conquer.
Jackson's looks like a Great American Restaurants property, and it feels like a member of the family, too. But "Mighty Fine Food" is a boast that has yet to trickle down from the marquee to the menu. I'm betting, however, that it won't take long for the young restaurant to catch up to its pedigree.