ALBANY — Since Jack’s Oyster House was founded in 1913, it has seen a long list of head chefs who have pleased generations of politicians, business people, locals and tourists alike.
Perched as it is at the foot of the State Street hill just down from the state Capitol building and the Empire State Plaza government complex and surrounded by office buildings, Jack’s is the place where muti-million dollar deals are made, where public policy is discussed, and a lot of horses are traded.
Thus, when anything changes at Jack’s, it is news.
Brad Rosenstein, third-generation proprietor, has implemeted the biggest changes in the restaurant’s nearly century-long history with a physical expansion that has more than doubled its size, and the recruitment of Larry Schepici, one of the Capital Region’s most celebrated chefs.
Rosenstein has converted a bar room that was situated next to the restaurant proper into another dining room, and added even more space for a long bar, a mid-sized banquet room, relocated restrooms and more dining space. The original dining room now sports more booth seating and the main entrance has been moved from there to create a greeting area into the new space.
With retention of Jack’s signature dark wood trim, along with blowups of historic local photographs, the mood stays the same but with plenty of elbow room that had been missing. Clever bronze coloring of old pipes, columns, fire screens and ornamental ceiling work adds depth and richness. The changes give the entire place a fresh, clubby look without looking as if it has the raw edges of newness. It still is Jack’s, but nicer.
Schepici, who has such highly-recognized restaurants as Sargo’s at the Saratoga National Golf Course, the Tavern at Sterup Square and Tosca Grille on his resume, has worked with Rosenstein to put his own creative touches on the menu while keeping such generations-old popular dishes as the original-recipe 1913 Manhattan Clam Chowder, calves liver with caramelized onions and bacon, and chopped nicoise salad.
However, the menu that has just gone into effect certainly shows the cooking styles and ingredients — many of them from local farms and vendors — for which Schepici is known. During a private tasting lunch for a small group of local food writers today, he began with his own dishes and finished with a slice of Jack’s famous cheesecake.
“They didn’t even want to give me the recipe,” Schepici joked. “It was in the vault. Isn’t it fantastic?”
It is, and always has been, but let’s begin at the beginning of the lunch.
• An arugula salad, dotted with pickled red onions, crumbled bleu cheese, spicy-sweet glazed walnuts, a fan of thin Bosc pear slices and a drizzle of blood orange vinaigrette. An altogether fresh, clean enticing start.
• Calamari, fried crisp and golden while maintaining the tenderness of the meat. A few drops of chipotle lime aioli and a pomodoro dipping sauce went nicely with the squid.
• Sea scallops, pan seared to a goldn brown on top, with a fennel dusting and an orange pink peppercorn champagne sauce. Buttery tender scallops, perfectly cooked. I am not a fan of fennel which has been a fad vegetable for a few years, but at least it was not overwhelming.
• The seafood risotto Venezia was excellent, cooked in a creamy lobster tarragon stock with bits of lobster meat, and topped with a diver scallop and a single large shrimp. The rich risotto was thick without being clumpy, a textural counterpoint to the tenderness of the seafood.
• Pork osso buco was a delicious taste of autumn on a fork. A slow-braised pork shank, the juices from that helping caramelize the root vegetables and complement the red wine sauce.
• Grilled lamb steak, cooked unfortunately a bit too long to preserve the tenderness of the meat, with a pungent roasted shallot and garlic confit and cabernet/lamb juice sauce.
• The aforementioned cheesecake — light, fluffy, fully flavored and abetted nicely by a bit of strawberry mint coulis and a dot of Chantilly cream.
All in all, a strong “A” grade right off the bat for a veteran chef getting used to a new kitchen. Even though Shepici has moved around quite a bit in his career, creating food in such a historic but re-energized spot may be just the recipe for a long stay.