Goat cheese and watermelon appetizer.
St. Pete Beach’s historic Corey Avenue is an oasis, a quirky refuge from the fried food, beer and beach emporia that dot the 23 miles of Gulf Boulevard from Clearwater Beach to the Don CeSar. Much like Main Street in Dunedin, Corey features a mix of fun shops selling everything from canine couture to olive oil. At the center of it all is Chef Jackie Smit’s piece of heaven.
Chef Smit, whose street cred includes stints at NYC’s Windows on the World and Bern’s, opened her eponymous restaurant less than a year ago and has already expanded to the adjacent storefront, doubling her indoor space with Jackie’s Jazz Bar. The deep coral-hued walls are lined with huge wire musical staffs hung with kitchen ladles representing a series of eighth notes. The sidewalk space is framed with planters full of fresh herbs and dotted with hollow metal obelisks spewing fire, should the lion of March weather allow a dip in the temperature.
Even though we choose an early weeknight to sample the wares, Jackie’s is hopping. There’s a one-man band with a double keyboard in the rear creating live Muzak from the American songbook, complete with synthesized horns, strings and omnipresent percussion. Senior couples wander back and forth to the dance floor between courses.
The restaurant fits right in with Corey Avenue's funky beachside aesthetic.
The friendly waitstaff hustles about, but seems to have insufficient numbers to attend fully to our needs. They’re attentive when they get to us, but the whole evening is slow and in search of water. The appetizers, however, are worth the wait. One of my dining companions knows a Jackie’s regular who comes for drinks and starters, so we have an insider’s guide to the menu.
Savory goat cheese balls are rolled in ground macadamia nuts and served warm on triangular watermelon wedges that surround a small clump of mixed baby greens. The plate is dotted with a tangy fig reduction. The salad is over-dressed, but the combo is a refreshing way to begin.
A cylinder of creamy chicken liver pate topped with capers and chopped onion is served with fresh crostini. It’s fine, but a tablemate wishes for another dimension, perhaps a hint of spirits or the crunch of nuts. Still, a worthy effort.
The wallflowers of the appetizer menu that bring surprise to the palate are the dates stuffed with fresh-herb goat cheese. They’re a dull study in brown — all wrapped in smoked bacon and drizzled with fig Cabernet reduction. But they are delicious and, I’m sure, a staple on Jackie’s catering menu. What they lack in visual flair, they more than make up for with taste as you pop those little suckers in your mouth. Party time!
As we move to entrees, I decide on one of Jackie’s many sandwiches. Since fried green tomatoes are on the appetizer menu, it seems a safe choice to try them as the primary ingredient in her BLT, which adds pesto aioli, lettuce with tomato vinaigrette, and applewood smoked bacon inside garlic bread.
Unfortunately, things are out of balance.
The bacon appears to have been pre-cooked in the oven, and is in a clump so it’s not perfectly crisp. The aioli doesn’t register because it’s overwhelmed by over-dressed lettuce, and the “garlic bread” is as squishy as a hot dog bun without any crackle to the crust. There are enough good baguettes in town that the choice of bread disappoints. The ongoing allure of the BLT is the juxtaposition of crisp toast (usually served as a three-slice club sandwich) with the lushness of a juicy tomato. Sadly, the textural elements in this versio
Chef Jackie Smit.
n are completely lost.
The same is true of the fresh local-caught grouper sautéed in crushed macadamia nuts with a mango-tarragon beurre blanc. The nuts are so finely ground they might as well be standard breading; they add neither taste nor crunch. And although the grouper filet is enormous, it’s not firm and flaky, but rather mushy like a piece of fish that’s been frozen. That may not be the case, but the texture is off. The sauce, too, lacks punch; it’s thin, pasty, and beige. I’d be hard-pressed to identify mango or tarragon. Beurre blanc is a classic French white butter sauce that has acidity and zip, hence a great match for fish. This plate is full of might-have-beens.
Luckily, the filet Diane is a perfectly seared 8-ounce fillet mignon with a sauce of Grey Poupon-encrusted shallots, brandy and housemade demi-glacé that complements the medium rare beef. As with the fish, it’s served with sautéed yellow squash and creamy scalloped potatoes that nicely accompany both dishes.
The center of the dessert service is a mouth-watering platter of various temptations from the neighboring Sarasota Cupcake Company that closed on Armand Circle but is going strong on Corey Avenue. Jackie’s also offers a rotating selection of both house-made and purchased confections: carrot cake, almond cake, key lime pie, etc. The almond cake that we choose alternates three layers of moist yellow genoise with a subtle Bavarian cream filling. It’s pleasant, but another missed opportunity to dial up the almond flavor or add the crunch of toasted coating.
Quibbles aside, the regular crowds clearly prove that Jackie’s is a welcome improvement to the usual beach fare.