Almost two years ago, Paula Pace closed Las Olas Café after 20 years serving roast duck with cherry sauce and walnut-crusted mahi mahi in a setting many people remember as one of the most romantic in South Florida. Pace ran the restaurant with her sister and father.
In August 2010, Pace returned with the Mason Jar Café, an upscale comfort-food spot where soft drinks would be served in Mason jars. It was meant to appeal to restaurantgoers who'd cut back during the height of the recession.
"It started out different," Pace says. "But then, everybody from Las Olas wanted the staples. We revised it. That's how things like duck, pistachio-crusted salmon and tilapia got on there. More than half the dinner entrees are from Las Olas."
It helped that Pace's partner at Mason Jar is Ernest Rado, former chef at Las Olas Café, Scott Kraft, an old friend of Pace's, rounds out the trio of owners.
The Mason Jar Café is also one of the most-hospitable restaurants I've been to in years. I don't think the place has a pretentious bone in its body. Maybe it's tough to put on airs when you enter a restaurant through a less-than-welcoming back door. The cozy interior appears to have been decorated by someone with a bad T.J. Maxx habit. There are just 23 tables, with a back room that can handle another eight diners when things get busy on weekends. A nice crowd visited on a recent Thursday night, but these longtime restaurateurs know what they're doing. Service hums along without a glitch. So does food. There's even a concise little wine list full of great buys.
Comfort food classics such as Janice's meat loaf ($16) and chicken pot pie ($15) work perfectly alongside the more-sophisticated dishes from the old days. The menu also has a bit of a Southern accent, with dishes such as fried pickles ($5), fried green tomatoes ($6) and chicken-fried steak or chicken ($18). Those tomatoes, by the way, are excellent — fried golden and served crisp.
But then, there's a very good French onion soup ($6) that's not so piping hot that you can't eat it, with quality cheese on top. The category where you'll find salads is called Rabbit Food, but entrees are served with either a Caesar salad or a simple Mason jar salad along with a choice of two sides.
I can't resist chicken pot pie ($15), and the oversize version here is near perfection, with just the right amount of flaky pastry on top and loads of chicken and vegetables inside. The gravy is thickened, but not pasty like so many pot pies.
Roasted duckling ($22) is indeed served crispy like the menu says. The honey-and-thyme glaze gives it an almost burgundy hue. The menu also includes spinach and pine ravioli with tomato sauce ($17), skirt steak with ancho chili sauce ($19) and beef short ribs in red wine ($19).
The big surprise the night we dined, however, was Ernesto's Famous Seafood Stew ($18), filled with fresh mahi, shrimp and mussels in a flavorful tomato broth. I suppose calling it bouillabaisse would be too pretentious for the Mason Jar, but that's what it is. Each seafood element is cooked perfectly.
All entrees and daily specials come with a choice of two vegetables: cheesy mashed potatoes, corn spoon bread, sweet potato mash, fries, mac and cheese, green bean casserole, carrots or Brussels sprouts with pistachios.
Over several meals, I ended up sampling many of them. The green bean casserole will take you right back to Thanksgiving. Mac and cheese is of the traditional variety, while the preparation of the Brussels sprouts feels contemporary.
Leave room for dessert. Most of them cost $5. But we couldn't resist a sample of strawberry chocolate pie, frozen lemon delight and a flourless chocolate cake served warm with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce. Pace's mother, Pauline DeRosa, makes that strawberry chocolate pie, which was so good I ordered a slice to take home.
The Mason Jar Café manages to be homey yet sophisticated at the same time. If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd be a regular.
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The Mason Jar Café
2980 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily
Credit cards: D, MC, V
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot in rear
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