Jackson’s Village Bistro
By Richard Foss
Note: Written in 2007
I rarely re-review restaurants in the pages of this paper unless they change hands or greatly alter their menus. This is not because there aren’t many eateries that are worthy of greater consideration, but simply because there are so many new restaurants and old favorites in the South Bay that I have given up hope of covering them all, let alone revisiting them.
Nevertheless, I occasionally re-evaluate a place and find that, despite the fact that the management and menu hasn’t changed, my opinion has. Such is the case with Jackson’s Village Bistro, which struck me as a tad erratic on my first visit. There were high points but also some over-exuberantly spiced dishes, and I noted that it was a new establishment with rough edges that might well smooth out over time.
Seven years later, the kitchen at Jackson’s has turned into one of the more reliable crowd-pleasers in the South Bay, and I decided it was time for another look. The room was still the same – homey and comfortable, with a light buzz of conversation over very soft music. After a server gave us menus, Chef Scott Cooper came out to describe the daily specials. I don’t know whether he does this every day (it was a quiet Tuesday on our visit), but his descriptions were so enticing that one of my companions immediately decided to get the soup and main course of the day. If Mr. Cooper ever gets tired of the culinary business, he’s a cinch for a career in sales, since his enthusiasm is contagious.
The other two of us ordered from the main menu, and we all settled down to investigating the bowl of hummos and basket of bread that arrived. It was a good and slightly non-traditional hummos, using less garlic and oil than usual but with a nice herbal flavor, and it went well with both the crusty French and the olive bread. We were just getting to the last dollop of hummos when our starters arrived – a Caprese salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil over mixed greens, a gorgonzola, pecan, and pear salad over greens, and the daily special of portobello mushroom cream soup. The caprese salad used excellent quality cheese and flavorful basil, but the tomatoes were cold and had little flavor. When Scott came by again we asked him about this, and his explanation made sense – most restaurant kitchens are too cramped to have a space where tomatoes can come out of the cooler and come up to room temperature where they won’t violate Health Department rules, so they are almost always served colder than is ideal. We mused that tomato salads might be one of the few items that can probably be made better at home than in a restaurant, since home cooks don’t have to worry about health regulations. Then I remembered the kitchen in my first apartment, which would have horrified a health inspector, and decided that maybe health regulations were a good idea even if it meant we sometimes ate cold tomatoes.
The pecan, gorgonzola, and pear salad was more of a hit, mainly due to the balance between rich cheese and nuts glazed and toasted in a way that intensified their flavor and slightly smoky sweetness. The runaway favorite was the cream of mushroom soup, which was intense, musky, and rich. There were chunks of mushroom, which added little bursts of flavor now and then. The woman who ordered it remembered Scott’s description of the recipe as “cream, mushrooms, cream, butter, wine, and cream,” which may not be strictly accurate, but definitely gives a sense of the texture.
Chef Cooper obviously is a fan of mushrooms and understands what to do with them; at a previous dinner at Jackson’s Village Bistro I had tried the portobello mushroom risotto with diced filet mignon in Chianti au jus with truffle oil. This was a show-stopper of a starter, and when I want a light dinner I’d happily have a salad and the risotto and depart very content.
For main courses we selected angel hair pasta with crab and asparagus, a seared ribeye with green peppercorn sauce, and a daily special of sautéed Pasilla chillies over mixed greens with smoked trout and red onion. This was offered as a starter, but one of my companions who is a light eater ordered it as a main course. The contrast of textures and tastes was startling and very successful, with the warm, slightly sweet peppers a brilliant contrast to lightly bitter greens, smoky fish, and tangy marinated onion. The portion was sufficient that she took a bit home despite our enthusiastic sampling of her dinner. This is not to say that we weren’t doing considerable damage to our own meals, which were very good. The peppercorn sauce had plenty of flavor but didn’t obscure the taste of the nicely done and tender steak, and the garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied that steak had just enough garlic to enhance the flavor without smothering it. The only item that didn’t come up to our by now very high expectations was the pasta that was described as containing crab and asparagus in a white wine parmesan sauce, but also had a considerable amount of roasted red bell pepper. The dish was in balance on those bites that included both pepper and asparagus, but I’d have preferred a bit less pepper so the crab could have shown a bit more. It also would have been better to serve the asparagus in pieces throughout the dish rather than in spears atop the pasta, despite the fact that it was a much prettier presentation as served.
My companions had tea to accompany their meal, while I tried the taster of three short pours of wine for $12.50. The two whites I chose from the by-the-glass list, a Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc and a Cambria Chardonnay, were both good, but the red, a wine called “The Prisoner” was exceptional. The unusual blend of many grapes combines to produce a food-friendly wine with aromas of cherry, berries, and coffee, and it’s a winner that I’m gong to seek out.
For dessert we selected a slice of apple tart tartin, bittersweet chocolate soufflé cake, and upside-down blackberry pie. I asked for the pie without the usual crème Anglaise sauce, since I like the tart berries unmodified by sweet creamy custard. My more sweet-toothed companions might have preferred it as it’s usually served, but I found it delightful. They were happier with the apple tart tartin with its caramelized apples and cakelike pastry and the dark, rich cake.
Dinner for the three of us ran just under $120.00 before tip, very reasonable for the quality of food and the very personal service. Restaurants of this character and quality are few anywhere, and it has been great to see how good this one has become, mellowing into excellence like one of the fine wines they serve.
Jackson’s Village Bistro is located at 517 Pier Avenue in Hermosa – open daily except Monday for dinner only. Wheelchair access good, but street parking only. Call 310-376-6714 for reservations or take-out.