Photograph by Gabe Meline
Jackson’s Bar & Oven
It’s too tempting, right there on the pizza menu: “The Undecided: Trust Us!” In other words, the diner orders it, and the cooks choose the toppings. Or, in still other words, a complete surprise. “No Suggestions,” the menu warns. I can’t resist.
It’s touches like this that make Jackson’s Bar & Oven in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square a fun, casual dining experience. What gets delivered to me 10 minutes later, however, makes it special: an unexpected pizza of curried cauliflower, seasoned bacon, fontina and mozzarella cheeses and an in-house bchamel sauce. Its crust is that sought-after form of chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside, with its outer bulbs perfectly blackened at the tips from the 800-degree wood-fired oven.
Opened in November 2009 by chef Josh Silvers of the one-block-away Syrah Restaurant, Jackson’s, named for his son, was always conceived as a more casual, less-expensive annex. Indeed, on a random visit, patrons drink Coors at the bar and watch the game; discuss where to find the cheapest gas; feed their two-year-olds peanut butter and carrots; open file folders to talk taxes and eat burgers while Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin play over the speakers.
“After cooking Syrah food for a week,” Silvers says on a recent Sunday, “what do I really want to eat? Do I want to eat Syrah food? Not really. I want to go out and have a really good burger or pizza or chicken wings. I couldn’t find chicken wings anywhere in the county that I really wanted to eat. So that was the idea. Somewhere chefs would want to eat in a casual environment.”
That casual environment was found just a block away from his highly acclaimed Syrah, at a corner space previously owned by Mixx, a restaurant that long ago graduated from hotspot to “institution.”
Silvers doesn’t want to be an “institution.” That’s partly why he’ll soon be switching up the menu, dcor and even the name at Syrah to a small-plate restaurant called Petit Syrah, and partly why he changed the appearance of Jackson’s drastically from that of its former tenant. “I didn’t want people to walk in,” he explains, “and go, ‘Oh, they dressed up the Mixx.’ I really wanted to start anew.”
The result is a high-ceilinged space with deep red walls and about five separate eating areas, including a second bar looking into the kitchen and an upstairs loft in the back. Yellow lighting hangs from the ceiling and walls, but the brightest spot in the room is what chef de cuisine Jason Denton calls the “big red beast”—a wood-fired oven that reaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
At Jackson’s, pork chops, chicken, whole fish, steaks, prawns, calamari, oysters, paella, roasted vegetables and mac and cheese all spend time in the oven. At a recent Christmas party, a whole 60-pound pig called the oven home for a few hours. Denton’s personal favorite dish right now is a lamb-stuffed flatbread, with flavors inspired by schwarmas and gyros he used to find living in San Francisco—baked, of course, in the big red beast.
A secret weapon of sorts in Jackson’s kitchen is pastry chef and John Ash transplant Scott Noll, who bakes all breads and buns fresh daily and whose sourdough starter—begun 20 years ago in Alaska—powers the dough. Soon after opening, Noll introduced beignets on the menu, and “they just exploded,” says Silvers. “I’ve been to New Orleans, to Cafe du Monde, the home of beignets, and I like Scott’s better.”
For Sonoma County Restaurant Week, Jackson’s offers a choice of pizzas with caesar salad for $19; a flight of four wines can be added for $10 more. And if you want to eat like the chefs do, add an order of fried potatoes: “If you take 15 French chefs out to dinner,” Silvers insists, “13 of ’em are gonna order steak frites.”
It’s the Jackson’s way—classic favorites made with organic, top-quality ingredients. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Silvers says. “We just want it to be perfectly round. It’s food that people can relate to. It’s not all weirded out. You know, we do a hot dog of the day. But it’s a damn good hot dog.”
Jackson’s Bar and Oven, 135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.545.6900.