To conflate two of John Calipariâ€™s favorite references, Jack Fryâ€™s is â€œeverybodyâ€™s Super Bowlâ€ around here. The go-to place for an anniversary, birthday, wedding rehearsal dinner, before the movie, after the movie, Saturday night, Sunday night, weeknight, lunch.
And therefore, Chef McClain Brown â€œhas a target on his back,â€ ever since he stepped in to replace Shawn Ward in the Jack Fryâ€™s kitchen. Louisville watched to see if Brown would change the menu, improve it â€“ ruin it?
Itâ€™s been a year, and time to announce, if you donâ€™t already know it, that itâ€™s business-as-better-than-usual emerging from the kitchen.
After all, Brown was Wardâ€™s sous chef for seven years. He knows Jack Fryâ€™s customers, and what they like and expect. Before that, he was also a line cook under Anthony Lamas at Seviche, so heâ€™s familiar with international preparations that sometimes stretched his comfort zone. And he managed the kitchen at Lynnâ€™s Paradise CafÃ©, too. So solid American tastes and Southern specialties are well within his purview.
But Brown is a chef, and chefs like to invent and improve, to tinker and introduce their own takes, even on the staples. So you just knew the restaurant was going to evolve, from Sean Wardâ€™s place to McLain Brownâ€™s place.
And it has, albeit slowly. This is an extraordinarily loyal clientele, after all, and Brown didnâ€™t want to be make radical changes right away. The owner, Stephanie Meeks, told me that a man comes into the restaurant every night, sits at the bar and orders shrimp and grits. Sometimes he eats there, sometimes he takes it home â€“ but same dish, every night!
Take away his shrimp and grits, or my wifeâ€™s warm Brie salad, or my Jackâ€™s burger (rare, please), or someone elseâ€™s spicy fried oysters or filet mignon, and you risk losing that loyalty. So Brown admits to a tricky balancing act, introducing one or two items at a time to let the clientele become used to his style of food, his preparations, his plating.
With that in mind, he has plunged ahead with foie gras. And not just any foie gras, but a heavenly cube of fattened goose liver sitting on a buttery toasted brioche crouton. A gastrique of grapefruit and white wine brings some tang to the mild flavors, and Brown dresses the dish with a couple of segments of brulÃ©ed grapefruit and a sprinkling of sweet pomegranate seeds. The combination of flavors makes this both a deeply delicious and refreshing appetizer.
Combinations of taste are also at play in the lunch entree, a house-made sausage. Whipped potatoes are generally along for any ride to sop up the gravy and fill the tummy, but Brownâ€™s whipped potatoes are creamy and delectable all by themselves, with flecks of onions.
The gravy those potatoes are busily absorbing is a tasty Old Rasputin Brown Ale reduction, and the sausage â€“ Jack Fryâ€™s makes it own â€“ is a mild but flavorsome veal, pork and roasted garlic sausage. Caraway and fennel add their flavors, as well.
Iâ€™m a sucker for roast chicken on the bone, as long as the meat is tender throughout. Brown guarantees that by marinating his heirloom chicken in a sweet tea brine, then serving the quarter cut on a bed of pesto cream, with a skullcap of crisp, flavorful skin, and a scattering of broccolini.
The star of the plate, though, is a side of ricotta gnocchi, a wonderfully creamy alternative to the more familiar potato gnocchi. The little pillows of pasta and cheese are melt-in-your-mouth sweet, soft and tender.
Finally, a filet of rainbow trout is served on a busily colorful plate, underneath a canopy of red and white quinoa, zucchini, carrot, cucumber and grilled pineapple slaw with a sprinkling of marcona almonds.
A dinner at Jack Fryâ€™s has always had a bittersweet aspect to it, because in choosing to order one dish youâ€™re failing to taste another (unless you have a willing dinner companion, and youâ€™re a sharer â€“ which I am not). Thatâ€™s especially true in Brownâ€™s restaurant these days, because the kitchen has so many new dishes and theyâ€™re not always featured on particular nights.
For example, the fish dish. While I enjoyed the trout, I was intrigued by a new fish entrÃ©e Brown has introduced, but which wasnâ€™t available the day we were there: snowy or black grouper served as his play on chowder, in a heavy cream sauce with clams, potatoes and smoked bacon.
He says thatâ€™s been one of the restaurantâ€™s most popular new offerings, almost rivaling the near-legendary salmon.
Another successful introduction has been a veal tenderloin with a caramelized lemon jus and those ricotta gnocchi, now nearly as popular as the best-selling lamb chops.
Brown says he does much of his experimenting with a couple of specials both at lunch and dinner. â€œWe have customers who always order the specials, by default,â€ he says. â€œTheyâ€™re our regulars, they know our menu and theyâ€™re comfortable giving us the feedback we need.â€
So far, so great.
Jack Fryâ€™s is located at 1007 Bardstown Road, 502.452.9244, www.jackfrys.com. Lunch is served Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., and dinner is served Mon.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun, 5:30-10 p.m. VT
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune