My “to-try” list for the next few weeks includes the Stockyards (a place can only garner so many perfect reviews before I want to see for myself) and the new chef at the Rosebud. But sometimes a subway/streetcar/bus trip to St. Clair and Christie isn’t in the cards, reservations aren’t made and convenience trumps all other considerations. That’s how Kat and I ended up at the Yonge and Bloor Jack Astor’s last week.
Rule No. 1: Pray for good service. Sit-down restaurant chains thrive on this (the Keg is the perfect example) because, I imagine, their customers are looking for comfort and familiarity. Our server, Wendy, did not disappoint. She even managed to up-sell “Cold as Ice” Kat on two occassions in one meal. The runners who silently desposited our food in front of us were clearly not cut from the same mold, though. Secret tip: If you know someone who has an uncanny knack for writing her name upside down the smart money bet says that she may have worked at Jack Astor’s sometime in the past.
Rule No. 2: Pay attention to the specials. Like non-chain restaurants these will turnover quickly and will therefore be fresher than other options. We stuck pretty tightly to the Big Summer menu and were, for the most part, not disappointed.
Kat tried the Frozen Raspberry Twister ($5.95) that included an entertaining table-side topping-up ceremony that I assume is designed to foil liquor laws that cap the amount of booze that can be sold in a single serving.
Also from the summer menu, Kat had the Chili Honey Chicken Fingers ($12.23). They were surprisingly good with a very light breading and a sauce that followed through on the menu’s promise of zestiness. The fries that accompanied were what I call “postmodern fast food fries”. They are skinny, emphasise crispiness, and have those little extra-crispy bits which I believe are the result of an extra coating of corn starch. KFC is probably the most recognisable convert to this new style. I know some people swear by these but I’ll take the old style slightly soggy fries if it means that I can have some potato flavour.
Rule No. 3: Double-up on the appetisers. This is another rule that applies at standalone restaurants and is based largely on my positive experiences and inability to decide.
We started with the Cheese Garlic Pan Bread ($7.85 and pictured the top) that comes topped with that ubiquitous yet mysterious “three cheese blend” and that the menu unironically describes as “infamous”. This is a warm and under-baked (intentionally) loaf served in a healthy dose of salty oil. I’ll be honest here and say that I prefer this over the flavour-less Italian white loaf; trendy, multi-grain, multi-seed bread; or stale rolls that are foisted on us by at least seventy percent of other restaurants. I’m also a sucker for the cast iron pan as serving dish motif. Infamous or not this one is a keeper.
The calamari ($9.98) that made up half of my main course was a mixed bag, at best. While the squid was cooked decently the breading was overwhelmingly dry so that each piece needed a healthy dip in the standard issue cocktail sauce and mystery white sauce (the online menu claims that it is lemon garlic aioli).
I returned to Rule No. 2 and the Big Summer Menu for the second half of my main course. The pot stickers ($8.96) needed to be left stuck to the pot for longer so that the skins could brown and offer more of texture contrast to the surprisingly flavourful filling. The accompanying vegetable garnish and “Pan-Asian sauce” were surprisingly good.
Jack Astor’s is not a chowfind but if you need to satisfy a crowd and you happen to be nearby you can definitely do worse. If they continue to concentrate on excellent service and tastier than average specials I can definitely see them doing well.