J's on Jackson is an update on the classic steak-and-potatoes place. It does what it does well.
The restaurant's third location (its first in Omaha), which opened in October in the Old Market, fills a void in the city's biggest food neighborhood: It's locally owned with a traditional, not too formal, not too casual menu. Though it's not breaking new culinary ground, it's the sort of comfortable place that will attract people from all over the city with classic food.
I liked almost everything I ate during two recent visits — we'll get to that. But first, I have to talk about the makeover that owner Jay Siers gave the former Passport Restaurant. It is, to put it mildly, rather astounding.
What once was a wide open, almost cavernous and certainly formal space has been divided into a more casual bar area to the east and a dining room to the west. The bar is welcoming and cozy — the kind of place people will want to hang out — and the bar and floor are both made of rich, dark wood. The bar makes good use of the tall east windows, giving diners seated at high tables an excellent view of a busy Old Market corner. Television sets hang on the bar, which is backed with mirrors and a wide selection of scotch and whiskey.
Siers said he wanted to make the two spaces feel separate, but not isolate the dining room from the Old Market. I think he succeeded.
We ate in the bar with a few friends on our first visit, which was during the Big 10 championship football game between Nebraska and Wisconsin. The medium-sized crowd was mixed: some clearly there to watch the game (including one very vocal Badgers fan) and some there just to check the place out.
What drew us to J's on this particular night was a game-day special that Siers later told me he runs at all the restaurant's locations: 25-cent draws of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer from the start of every Nebraska football game until the team scores its first touchdown. The guys stuck to the cheap beer. I ordered a more-than-serviceable glass of red wine which turned out to be $1 off for happy hour.
The waitress told us that the restaurant is known for pasta dishes and dry-aged beef and gave us a few minutes to order.
I ordered the bleu burger, which I figured had to be good, and my husband decided on the seafood pappardelle, an order that had us both a touch worried. Bad pastas are on a lot of menus around Omaha. I've eaten more than my fair share of them.
Thankfully, this one wasn't part of that crowd. It was really good.
I had a hard time telling if the thick pappardelle noodles were homemade, and Siers told me later they're fresh frozen. The dish wasn't muddy in flavor like it could have been. Instead, bites of shrimp, big chunks of Maine lobster and in-shell mussels all had their own distinct flavors and the light sherry cream sauce was not overwhelming. The seafood was all nicely cooked. I was pleasantly surprised.
Siers told me later that the pasta and seafood are cooked to order and tossed together right before serving, and that explained why the flavors didn't run together.
The bleu burger was what I expected: The meat was juicy, the inside was pink and the burger hand-pattied and nicely seasoned. Blue cheese crumbles and a mild blue cheese sauce didn't dominate its flavor. Shallots were a nice choice — onion would have overpowered it. A side of sweet potato fries were fine.
The one clunker we encountered on the first visit was something my friend ordered. Being vegetarian, she asked for the shrimp-tzatziki flatbread without the seafood because the kitchen had no problem with substitutions.
Asparagus and broccoli topped the soft flatbread, which had nicely crispy edges but a soggy center. We thought the problem might be too much havarti cheese, and we'd rather have seen it topped with a seasonal squash such as butternut or acorn rather than the out-of-season asparagus. The flatbread came topped with a pile of lightly dressed greens, and my friend liked them.
Siers said later he thought the flatbread might have been overloaded with the creamy sauce, which gets soggy quickly if it sits for even a few minutes.
Prices at the restaurant are reasonable to high: The bleu burger sells for $10.99 as does the flatbread. Entrees are pricier. The pasta was $25.
My husband and I ate a second dinner on a night when the restaurant was filled with holiday celebrations. The adjacent party room was full and almost every table elsewhere was occupied. Even with the crowd, we waited for fewer than 10 minutes in the bar, and were escorted to a two-seat table near it on the edge of the dining room.
J's has lavosh on its menu and I decided to try it, especially since M's Pub, just a block down the street, has been known for the dish for years. J's version is pretty close to M's Thai lavosh, minus the sweet chile sauce. It had the same crisp cracker crust and was topped with a healthier amount of havarti than M's version; chicken was cut into neat cubes instead of chunks. The two dishes were close. Siers said later he thinks J's version is better. I think I'll have to respectfully disagree with him on this one.
The special that evening was a ribeye with a balsamic glaze and cherry tomatoes. My husband ordered it. The sauce had strong but not overpowering balsamic flavor and the vinegar seemed to enhance the meat's texture.
Siers told me later that all the meat the restaurant serves is hand-cut in house.
I went for the duck breast and thigh confit served with Israeli couscous, braised beets, sweet potato crisps and a bacon-butter glaze.
The duck was moist, tender and super-flavorful. A bone-in cut still had the crispy skin on the outside, and these were the best bites. The braised beets and crunchy sweet potato slivers had lots of flavor and just a hint of bacon. The couscous, while nicely cooked, disappeared into the background.
I felt instant regret the moment the waitress-recommended strawberry shortcake arrived at the table. It's not that it was bad, I just had creme brulee, another choice on the menu, on my mind. The shortcake tasted pre-packaged, though Siers told me later that it's made from scratch. He recommended a different dessert altogether: the house-made pot de creme with from-scratch chocolate and butterscotch sauces. It's on my list for the future.
I asked Siers if he'd seen regular customers from his other two restaurants, in Fremont and Norfolk, venture downtown.
“I've seen it go both ways,” he said. “We've had some Omaha people in Fremont and the other way around. We've had people downtown from Council Bluffs. And people who live in the Old Market are becoming loyal to this location.”
It makes sense. Like I said, the restaurant isn't ground-breaking. But that's OK with me, and it probably will be with lots of other diners, too. J's on Jackson is satisfying in a comfortable, contemporary way. It's welcoming, and will likely do well as a new locally-run downtown staple.
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