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Review: At Jackson's Prime in Fort Lauderdale, big names still have game

 

★★★½

In a restaurant world increasingly filled with chains, clones and fast-casual queues, it is nice to walk into a place that feels grown-up, sophisticated and distinct. Jackson’s Prime is such a restaurant. It is elegant without being stuffy, polished without being pretentious. Twelve chandeliers hang from the ceiling, casting a warm and twinkling glow after dark. Vases with purple orchids bring a splash of color to tables draped in white linen. The food — classic American steaks and seafood — is straightforward and very good. The bar is lively, the cocktails are excellent and the wine is fairly priced.

I’m not usually one to fall head over heels for an expensive steakhouse — the top cut here, a succulent 20-ounce USDA Prime porterhouse, goes for $65 — but the mood of my group after a recent meal was positively ebullient. We walked out feeling fulfilled and not fleeced. Given its offbeat location and hidden-gem quality, Jackson’s Prime reminds me of the original Bistro Mezzaluna when that restaurant first opened more than two decades ago. Jackson’s Prime is stylish and mostly delicious, a place that seems more Manhattan than South Florida storefront. It is a restaurant that should be packing in Fort Lauderdale’s well-heeled for years to come.

Jackson’s Prime opened in August without much fanfare on a quiet Fort Lauderdale side street near Galt Ocean Mile. Veteran restaurateur Jack Jackson wanted it that way. No press releases, PR agencies or splashy media dinners. He figured he would build the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth, and that the 150-seat restaurant would hit its stride in time for the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and winter season. Also quietly, Jackson hired acclaimed South Florida chef Johnny Vinczencz to helm the kitchen.

Longtime South Floridians should know both names. Jackson is back in the restaurant game after an eight-year absence. He ran Burt & Jack’s at Port Everglades with partner Burt Reynolds from 1984 to 2002, and Jackson’s Steakhouse on Las Olas Boulevard from 1997 to 2009. Vinczencz, a Norman van Aken disciple once known as the “Caribbean Cowboy” for his bold flavors, was chef-partner at Johnnny V on Las Olas Boulevard from 2004 to 2016 after his star turn at the Hotel Astor in Miami Beach from 1996 to 2002.

Jackson converted an Italian restaurant into Jackson’s Prime, and when Vinczencz saw the gorgeous open kitchen, featuring a $165,000 European-style Montague cooking suite and $25,000 Terraluxe gas-fired pizza oven, he came aboard.

“I think we’ve created something very special,” Jackson says in a followup interview after my meal. “I don’t look at it as a comeback because I don’t think I have to come back from anything. It’s doing more of something I love.”

Any astute diner at Jackson’s Prime should recognize that old pros are running the show. The place exudes mindfulness. The butter served with a generous bread basket was soft. Our waiter poured wine in reasonable amounts so that one bottle lasted four people the entire meal. Excellent conch chowder was served with a shaker bottle of dry sherry, and the lemons that accompanied the signature stuffed baked lobster were covered with squeeze nets.

That lobster dish ($49) is reprised from the Burt & Jack’s menu, finished to golden crispy goodness at 580 degrees in the pizza oven. Vinczencz has brought back several items from his Johnny V repertoire, including pumpkin seed-crusted goat cheese salad ($12) with red and gold beets and shallot relish, and a grilled salmon entrée ($27) with shrimp plantain stuffing and mango papaya chutney.

There are also many new wrinkles, including charred Spanish octopus with arugula and smoked tomato relish ($16), salt baked branzino with zucchini pistou ($35) and updated sides such as risotto tots with truffle pecorino ($11), Brussels sprouts with a piquant apple gastrique ($12) and baby green beans with crisp slivers of jamon serrano ($12).

Jackson says his intent was to create a modern steakhouse, one where carnivores can feast on the well-marbled USDA Prime that comes from West Palm Beach-based purveyor Bush Brothers and where Vinczencz “raises the bar” on other dishes. Jackson says he wants food that tastes good but is not “too froufrou.” The veal porterhouse special ($42) that I enjoyed was a perfect example. The plate featured a juicy veal chop on the bone cooked perfectly medium with the right amount of fat. It was topped with grilled asparagus and sat atop a pile of Yukon mashed potatoes (unfortunately they were cold).

Jackson has changed with the times and his new neighborhood. Burt & Jack’s required jackets for male patrons. Jackson’s Steakhouse wouldn’t allow jeans, and Jackson winced when I told him the story of how my party of 14 got turned away on the night of my 2002 bachelor party when one friend (the wealthiest, of course) was wearing jeans with his Oxford shirt and loafers. Things are more casual at Jackson’s Prime. I saw two men in shorts eating at the bar. And I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw Jackson wearing jeans with a blazer when I interviewed him at the new restaurant. These days he draws the line at baseball caps worn backwards.

Not everything was perfect. The sound system featured light jazz of the cloying Kenny G variety. “I wish it was real jazz,” said one dining mate. Three fish dishes, including the branzino and salmon, were not available on the night we went, following the restaurant’s busiest night ever. Fresh-cut truffle fries ($11) were soggy. Vinczencz suspects they are being betrayed by the pretty cylindrical cone they are served in, which traps steam. It took three attempts for Colorado lamb chops ($49) to get properly cooked to the ordered medium-plus.

Staff made things right when things went wrong. As a makeup for the meat miscue, the manager comped us desserts. We enjoyed a wonderful berry parfait and a dense strawberry cheesecake with an apple pie baked within it, the turducken of the dessert world. “I call it ‘pie-cake-in,’ ” quipped our server, a veteran of Johnny V.

Jackson says the new restaurant has attracted Galt Ocean Mile and Coral Ridge residents and his former business crowd from Las Olas has been finding him. A certain famous Fort Lauderdale billionaire (initials HWH) even has been in for dinner.

Jackson, who played baseball growing up in Cape Cod, told me the story of going to a New York Yankees fantasy baseball camp years ago with his friends Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Mantle managed the amateur players in their culminating game against former Yankees, then got talked into pinch-hitting late in the game. He crushed a home run at Fort Lauderdale Stadium against Ford, a moment Jackson’s friend captured on videotape. Jackson later presented Mantle with the tape, titled “Mickey’s last home run.”

“Nobody ever wants to think that they’ve hit hit their last home run,” Jackson says.

At Jackson’s Prime, it’s nice to see a couple of All-Stars swinging for the fences once more.

Jackson’s Prime

3300 Northeast 32nd St., Fort Lauderdale

954-765-6316, jacksonsprime.com

Cuisine: Steaks and seafood

Cost: Expensive. Appetizers and salads cost $9 to $21, mains $24-$65, side dishes $11-$12, desserts $10-$12

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Suggested, by phone and online

Credit Cards: All major

Bar: Full liquor with excellent signature cocktails ($12) and fairly priced wine list

Noise level: Conversational with light jazz on speakers, can get noisy on livelier side with open kitchen

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Valet or metered street

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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