Jack's Restaurant 

Jack's carves a fragile niche in chain-crazed suburbia.

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Still, this seems typical of Jack's, a blend of the delicious and interesting with the odd and awkward; a restaurant on the edge of maturity.

You can tell a lot about a restaurant from the menu. But what happens when on two successive visits you're presented with two shockingly different menus? In the course of a few weeks, Jack's switched from an elegant, leather-bound tri-fold menu featuring pan-seared scallops atop saffron risotto and grilled shrimp tostadas with pico de gallo and black bean salsa to a laminated, full-color placard featuring photos of pizzas, burgers and sandwiches. The former represented what one might expect from a bistro in the Fan. The current menu is more reminiscent of Virginia Commonwealth University students' late-night standby, Aladdin Express.

Situated between Brandermill and Woodlake along a stretch of Hull Street Road dominated by chain restaurants, Jack's is housed in a former Sonic drive-in, which still sports the signature parking spaces with overhangs. The internal renovations include tapestry-covered booths, copious silk plants and candles floating in wineglasses. Yet out the window and across the parking lot is the carryout window of the Outback Steakhouse. So what niche is Jack's trying to fill? It seems clear that nine months after opening its doors, this family-run and family-oriented joint is still shape-shifting, still seeking its best fit.

Then again, change can be a good thing. The new menu, for example, means that the overcooked scallops and flavorless saffron risotto are gone. Sadly, the tasty, piquant grilled shrimp tostada was lost in the conversion. What have surfaced are tried and true dishes that may not excite your imagination but offer options to please the family.

Hand-tossed pizzas come in a variety of specialty guises, from the classic margarita with tomatoes and basil to the spicy Jack's special with andouille sausage, grilled chicken, fresh mushrooms and peppers. The thin and crispy crust may come out a bit uneven, but that's testament to the fact that each is shaped by hand.

Where the menu really shines is with its salads and pastas. Linguine with shrimp in a brandy pink tomato sauce was a little bit of heaven, though a bit short on shrimp (with only four medium crustaceans) to grace the high end of the menu at $17. Luckily, the flavor was deep and rich enough to make up for this shortcoming. Jack's also offers linguine with clam sauce and other better-than-your-average-red-sauce-joint renditions of primavera and Alfredo.

The salads still speak of the higher aspirations of the kitchen: spinach matched with roasted pears, blue cheese and walnuts, and a satisfying pair of golden fried crab cakes dressed with lemon beurre blanc atop baby greens in a nicely emulsified balsamic vinaigrette.

But the most telling retentions on the menu may be the pot roast and meatloaf. This hints that Jack's owners are trying to lure the many young families in the immediate area by serving good renditions of dishes you don't often see in restaurants and rarely have time to make at home. Pot roast is tricky to prepare by the order, and the result was as dry as I had thought it might be, but flavorful nonetheless. The better option is the meatloaf, which was tangy and large enough for a doggie-bag lunch the next day.

Though Jack's may be suffering from split personality, it hits the mark on the dessert menu, where a banana split and brownie sundae are offered beside crème brûlée and bananas Foster. With straight sweets for children and sophistication for adults, everyone is satisfied.

If families in the Brandermill area can venture beyond the dazzling familiarity of Friendly's, Friday's and the like, they may find a new favorite where the confusion of paper napkins and linen table clothes makes perfect sense. S

Jack's Restaurant ($)
13923 Hull Street Road
Monday-Thursday: 4-9:30 p.m.; Friday: 4-10 p.m.; Saturday: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

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