They dot the suburban landscape -- these surf and turf emporiums. You drive past them time and again wondering if the care lavished on the landscaping and lighting is similarly lavished on the food.
At Mountain Jack's, new to this area but part of a national chain, the interior has also received special attention -- leaded and etched glass room dividers, white table linens, rustic woodsy paintings, and no less than four gas burning fireplaces. These, of course, are not crackling fires of the old mountain lodge -- here the flames are carefully controlled to burn silently at the same intensity.
And the element of control -- at least quantity control -- extends to the food. When you ask the waitress how many crabs in the Mountain Jack's Crab Feast, the answer is a corporately determined 10 ounces.
Those in the kitchen may be whizzes at weighing the food but, alas, the culinary results are sometimes off the mark.
First, there are some things that Mountain Jack's does well. This is especially true of the fish. Flown in fresh from Boston and other places along the Eastern seaboard, the fish dishes are listed on a card at your table along with other daily specials. the preparation -- broiling, baking or charbroiling -- is simple and straightforward. Even tonier restaurants, however, would be pleased with the results but would charge you twice as much.
For diners unfamiliar with the mako shark offered one day, the waitress described it as similar to bluefish, but with your eyes closed the taste of the charbroiled mako shark could be confused with a tender and juicy filet mignon.
The Louisiana blackened redfish was equally juicy and tender although one diner thought the charring was excessive and the spices too mild.
Another simply prepared success from the list of daily specials was the petite top sirloin supreme -- perfectly cooked medium rare and topped with a flourish of chopped onion and green pepper on melted cheese.
Another beef specialty, the prime rib, was a real disappointment, lacking flavor other than the bouillon-like taste of the juice.
All the shellfish, we were told, arrives frozen. that may explain why the Alaskan king crab legs for the Crab Feast available for dinner Sunday through Thursday varied in taste and texture from acceptable to poor. Being previously frozen, however, wasn't as objectionable as the overly salty taste and small number of "hot'n spicy" shrimp served as an appetizer.
A more satisfying appetizer was an order of potato skins -- eight russet halves nicely browned (although not crisp) and coated on the inside with melted cheese, sprinkled with scallions and bacon bits. Whereas some dishes arrived without garnishes or other evidence of care in presentation, the potato skins were attractively arranged on a bed of leaf lettuce with a small ramekin of sour cream in the center. The soup of the day, served as an appetizer or as an accompaniment to a sandwich, was a hearty and delicious split pea. For lunch, skip the sauteed chicken sandwich. The flattened chicken breast, served on greasy, cheese toasted French bread, was dry with little flavor. A better bet is the charbroiled hamburger. All sandwiches come with a choice of rice pilaf, generally good home fries, or a forgettable pasta salad.
Another pasta, this one on entree on the luncheon menu, was the cannelloni marinara. The veal and ricotta filling was smooth with a peppery bite, but the pasta shells were tough in places and the two sauces undistinguished.
Mountain Jack's uses a few gimmicks to set it off from other similar establishments. For lunch in the lounge you can make your own sandwich by the ounce. A scale sits to one side of the sandwich bar offering four kinds of bread, slices of turkey, pastrami, two kinds of cheese, lettuce, tomato, coleslaw and potato salad. At 35 cents an ounce, we were told most sandwiches tip the scales at less than $3.
At dinner, the "salad bar" comes to you in the form of a lazy susan with predictable salad bar ingredients. You tell the waitress what you want, she puts it on your plate and then both the salad bar and the waitress vanish into the kitchen. Some may think that this is a step toward more gracious dining, others that this is a sneaky ploy to eliminate second helpings.
Mountain Jack's specially priced early dining menu offers selected entrees at $7.95 with a choice of soup or salad. The entree portions are smaller than at dinner, but then you would surely have room for the delicious mud pie for dessert. The generous serving of mud pie, a concoction of coffee ice cream on a crust of chocolate cookie crumbs, covered first with thick hot fudge sauce, then nuts and topped with a high mound of whipped cream, is big enough to share but good enough not to. Among other desserts, the New York-style cheesecake is respectable.
At Mountain Jack's, the interior designers have a leg up on the chefs. But, if you pick and choose carefully from the menu, a visit here can not only be pleasant and comfortable but gastronomically satisfying, too.