ST. PETE BEACH
She has her own bobblehead. That may not sound like much, but seriously, do you have your own spring-jiggled likeness? Jackie Smit is like that. She has cooked at several places in Pinellas County but you want to get the chronology right because there was a lot more before that. And here is what she says.
"I grew up in the food business and at age 9 made Thanksgiving for 21 people. My mom was a great chef and she'd tell me what to do but I'd do the opposite. I was a rebel. I went to the Culinary Institute of America and I didn't learn much except that I wanted to learn more about tasting, so I went to Europe for five years and I scrubbed cooks' floors and did their laundry to learn how to make Mama Leone's sauce."
It goes on like this, but maybe I should postpone the rest of the serpentine story to say that last year she bought her own space on Corey Avenue. She took possession on May 4 and opened the doors on May 11 to catch Mother's Day. She still didn't have a phone number, but she's the kind of gale-force gal who can't be slowed by quibbles. She opened Jackie's on Corey Bistro & Catering and aims to open Jackie's on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg and Jackie's on Main Street in Safety Harbor this summer. If she replicates her comfy, neighborhood, seafood-heavy, mid-priced New American concept faithfully, they will be welcome additions in either case.
Back to her story. After Europe she went to the Florida Keys and opened Quay, then in 1987 to South Beach to open the Palace Bar and Grill before shipping off to California to do stints at Chez Panisse and Square One, French Laundry and Wolfgang Puck's Postrio, then on to Manhattan and five years way up high at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center. She came back to Florida to work on the new Bern's menu with Jeannie Pierola, moved on to the early days with Steve Westphal and Tyson Grant at St. Pete's Parkshore Grill, then to Mazzaro's and working with Dan Casey at Madfish in St. Pete Beach and a stretch at nearby Steam and Chill.
Enough resume, you're saying. But a chef's resume is different from other folks' — there's a whisper of flavor, technique and aesthetic from each kitchen, a cumulative effect that creates a singular signature. Chef Jackie likes to please, with a little bit of sweetness and bighearted portions, but always with an eye to what's healthy. She's big into dishes that go light on carbs and gluten but focus in on gutsy veggies and fresh Gulf fish. She respects her classical roots (steak Diane, an escargot napoleon) but delights in comfort foods as well (fried green tomato BLT, shrimp and grits).
In a couple of visits I found I was more impressed with her entrees than her apps. A special of lobster bisque was a little thick and smooth for my tastes, a trio of mini crab cakes a bit soft. But head for a macadamia-crusted grouper or the evening's special of banana chip-crusted grouper and wowza: Generous plank of perfectly cooked fish with a crisp edge, the former served with a luscious mango tarragon beurre blanc (see, classical French meets Floribbean). With many of the entrees come a wedge of cream-rich potato gratin and a scoop of tender-crisp pan-sauteed squashes, neither accompaniment an afterthought.
Salads are a strong suit, from a stacker of roasted beets and goat cheese to UglyRipe tomatoes alternated with velvety mozzarella and a big pouf of mixed greens nicely dressed. Jackie's is a place where vegetarians are not given short shrift (a black bean burger with red pepper aioli is anything but abstemious) and where the deep fryer is used sparingly (except her housemade potato chips are killer).
Although it feels intimate and welcoming, the restaurant is fairly large with a big, canopied sidewalk space and two main dining rooms, one tending to be given over to larger parties. Servers are personable and know the menu cold, and thus far the wine list is moderately priced and without a ton of surprises.
Jackie's on Corey came together on a shoestring with elbow grease and determination, Smit assembling a like-minded team. Even for someone with her own bobblehead, it's hard to divide time between a mini empire of restaurants. But if she manages, St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor have something exciting to look forward to.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.