Bet on a good meal at Black Jax Saloon in Centerbrook

I’ll confess I was a bit excited when I heard a place called “Black Jax Saloon” was opening in my neck of the woods. Doubly so when we heard it would be another creation by Jack Flaws — the culinary captain of several popular shoreline area restaurants, including the wonderful Jack Rabbit’s in Old Saybrook and a great (and sadly defunct) steakhouse, also in Saybrook, among others. Chef Flaws knows his way around a steak and burger, so when I heard he was launching a steakhouse with an intriguing name, I took note.

If you haven’t tried the goods at Jack Rabbit’s, hop on over there immediately and learn what a real burger should taste like. The skill and panache Flaws beings to burgers translates well at his new enterprise, which delivers on smoky, hearty, familiar fare with some very clever twists.

There are two things to note about the Black Jax menu: the in-house smoker gets plenty of use every day, and the portions are very generous. Many menu items feature the fruits, so the speak, of the smoker. For example, the Prime Rib Sandwich ($12), an enjoyable construction that features more than an inch of the titular beef on a thick ciabatta roll, with lettuce, tomato and horseradish mayo. Two of us split one during a lunchtime visit and paired with the accompanying waffle fries (more like thick-cut, home-made potato chips than fries) and an appetizer, we filled up pretty quickly.

The tender, juicy prime rib proved to be a nice preview of the barbecue feast to follow on a later visit. Like the prime rib, the barbecue is prepared simply, and the main attractions — prime cuts of meat and unabashed smokiness — don’t get lost in the sauce. Literally. Four bottles of barbecue sauce arrived alongside our Barbecue Sample Platter ($32), a recent dinner special that could have fed four people. The ample servings of pork belly, beef brisket, ribs, and smoked chicken offered distinct and delicious examples of the power of preparation when sampled sans sauce. Mix and match with the sauces — Carolina, Memphis Hot, Cincinnati (who knew?) and Kansas City styles — and you’ve got several new worlds of nuance and flavor. We lost track of which sauce emerged the favorite because we truly enjoyed all four, and even the spice-heat-averse will find lots to enjoy there. Note: All items in the sampler platter are available individually on the regular menu.

Naturally, an item called the Smokey Jax Margarita ($12) seemed like a suitable companion cocktail to a platter of smoked meats. If you like strong and literally smoky flavor profiles, try this drink. It’s a stiff and strong Mezcal-based concoction with a snap of lime that’ll wake you right up.

After two visits, I’ll advise this: As fun as the appetizer menu is, try not to load up too much during the pre-game snacking if an entrée is to follow. If, like some people, you order the Truck Stop Queso Dip ($12) and the BBQ Brisket Hushpuppies ($9) before a main entree, just make sure at least two to three other people are ready to help out. The hushpuppies might look small, but they’re packing loads of flavor courtesy of the brisket, and their fried exterior makes for a filling start. The queso dip is slightly lighter, but it’s served with warm and very fresh tortilla chips, and the truly spicy pepper and cheese sauce delivers a salty, savory experience that’ll keep your water glass on the edge of a table for refill. It’s quite tasty, though.

Indeed, that queso sauce is very, very good when it’s served atop a Black Jax Stuffie, a “big baked stuffed potato” served in a handful of ways. I opted for the shredded chicken option ($12), but Stuffies can come with beef brisket, pulled pork, all of the above or none of the above with the veggies of your choice. The non-veggie Stuffies all come with tomatoes, bacon, scallions on top, too, and if you thought a baked potato does not a dinner make, you would be wrong. The chef has located enormous spuds that can hold a lot of toppings, and the earthy tinge of the skins and the creamy flesh within ensure the potato is not a mere vehicle for the cheesiness on top but an important partner in a classic comfort-food combo. It was delicious, and the half of it that survived the meal was still somehow tasty after a night in the fridge. I paired the Stuffie with a side of roasted asparagus, tossed in a simple mix of, we think, olive oil and salt and pepper ($8), and again we were pleased with the quality of the produce, despite the season.

Quality, really, appears to be the name of the game at Black Jax Saloon, and we’re looking forward to sitting in for a few more hands at this fun new eatery.

 

Black Jax Saloon

78 Main St., Centerbrook

(860) 662-4000

www.blackjaxsaloon.com

Cuisine: Hearty, dressed-up barbecue and steakhouse

Atmosphere: While the word "Saloon" is in the title, the décor goes light on Old West touches and errs on the side of tasteful, casual, and ample seating with gleaming wood floors and furniture. The bar area offers cozy seating for about a dozen patrons.

Service: Friendly and knowledgeable. Bussers were very attentive. No water glass went unfilled.

Prices: Not the cheapest night out, but it won't break the bank. Our priciest dish was a BBQ sampler platter at $32. Angus beef steaks start at $36; sandwiches average at $12, and cocktails will run you approximately $12 each

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Credit cards: Accepted

Handicapped access: Plenty of space within, and a sturdy ramp offers entry on the side of the building.

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