There's something new going on at the former Jackson in the Lower Garden District, though it's hardly surprising if word of the change has been slow to get around.
The original Jackson was an upscale bistro opened in the first wave of post-Katrina restaurants in spring 2006. It lasted about a year. Its building sat dormant until October when it was reopened by new owners including Mark Anthony, an Englishman who arrived in New Orleans last year. His brother-in-law John Bolderson is the chef, and together they've built a different, more casual restaurant.
The name and the logo, however, remain the same. Anthony says it was easier to get the business started this way, though it's led to some confusion over the new restaurant's identity. The previous Jackson aimed high and frequently missed. This Jackson sets its culinary sights at mid-range and hits this mark more frequently.
The menu is similar to the wide-ranging, crowd-pleasing concept many national chains have worked so successfully — burgers, dips, entree salads and a smattering of entrees sharing no particular focus. Here, though, is the local owner/operator rendition done with plenty of New Orleans influence and much greater personality.
You've probably encountered close relatives of Jackson's Tex-Mex-style diablo dip at house parties, and the gorgonzola cheesecake served in dense, sour wedges with water crackers is a caterer's standard. Of the other appetizers, a twist on broiled oysters adds shrimp to bivalves on the half shell, though each part was puny and dry when I tried it. The steamed mussels were much better, with minced chorizo and wisps of fresh fennel fronds in the garlic broth.
Sandwiches are formidable and often have interesting flourishes. Spicy, smoky chipotle cream sauce slathered the bacon burger. An immense fried chicken breast was topped with the kind of coleslaw dressing usually found over cochon de lait, and the roast beef po-boy was spiked with hot pepper relish.
The straightforward tuna steak was my favorite entree thanks to a restrained blackening crust and spicy-sweet butter with strawberries and jalapenos. Blackening turned to outright incineration for some unfortunate sea scallops, however, ruining an otherwise nice entree salad of arugula and jicama.
Jamaican jerk chicken provides a mountain of food for $15, with a half chicken and two sides (make sure one is the shoestring fries with truffle butter and parsley). Italian gets a turn too, courtesy of gnudi, the tender ricotta dumplings recently seen at A Mano, though done one better here with spinach in the mild cheese dough. The familiar seafood platter is like a family-sized salad bowl filled with fries and a tumble of oysters and shrimp, each with distinct fried crusts.
Brunch features much of the regular menu alongside a few novel additions like fried green tomatoes done Benedict style and high-proof Grand Marnier French toast.
In addition to the name, the new Jackson retains the charismatic interior design, which survived several ownership changes. Sheathed in weathered brick, extending up to iron-lined interior galleries and finished in scrimshaws of woodwork, the place has more nooks than a grownup's treehouse. Jackson's fare may be more familiar, but this setting remains as intriguing as ever.