My Central Illinois Food Column

When I left my corporate cubicle, I tried a “slash career” as a writer/personal chef. (Yes, I cook my own consommé, but I’d rather chat about your preferences for rolled or dropped dumplings in chicken ‘n’ dumplin’s.)

After writing assignments outpaced my cooking gigs, I hung up my professional apron, but no experience is ever wasted. Soon I was writing a restaurant column and eating my way across Central Illinois. Small, unique restaurants like Jack and Jo’s were my favorites.

Take your pick in Mason City

As published in The Pantagraph

Sometimes, a meal is just a meal – a refueling session completed during the rush from one place to another. In this busy world, a restaurant that treats eating as an experience rather than an errand is a welcome surprise. The suggestion of a reader generated our recent trip to Jack and Jo’s Steakhouse in Mason City, where ambiance can be found inside and out. A departure from the interstate sends vehicles down a long stretch of road, with lights cutting through the darkness intermittently. Then the business district pops into view, where storefronts darkened in the evenings frame two restaurants glowing with color and life.

One meal, two menus

John and Peggy Means own Jack and Jo’s (named for John’s late parents) and the adjacent PJ’s Pizza and Pasta.

As a carnivore, I was drawn to the steakhouse side, with its filet mignon beckoning from a chalkboard. My friend, the pizza/pasta fiend, was equally attracted to the PJ’s menu; he ordered spaghetti. John and Peggy cut a sizable opening between the two restaurants, and although there are two kitchens, customers from either side can shop from both menus.

Salads and rolls arrived first. Our greens were peppered by craisins (dried, sweetened cranberries) and caraway seeds dotted the soft rye bread.

My filet mignon included a ring of bacon and a pleasantly pink center. At $14.95 (regular $15.95), I was happy to taste a soft, genuine filet mignon, free of the gristled line that marks an imitation. Other steak choices include ribeye and top sirloin. I could have added shrimp to my filet or gone a different route with a selection of halibut, salmon, pork chop or chicken breast.

The food in Jack and Jo’s makes you want to shut your eyes for better focus as you mentally dissect each dish into its ingredients and individual flavors. The vegetable accompanying my steak and baked potato that evening was “santa fe corn,” a relish-style corn laced with mysterious complexity. “Smoked,” John would tell me later. He confirmed my verdict of “red wine” as a primary taste in the sauce he infused into the mushrooms on my filet, adding he also uses soy, butter and spices.

We finished our meal by sharing a slice of crème brulee cheesecake. I use the term “sharing” loosely, since I inhaled 75 percent of the slice while my friend’s head was turned.

Laced with tiny specks of vanilla, the creme brulee cheesecake is sweet enough to turn your eyes upward; it should qualify as a religious experience. Tiramisu and other desserts also occupy the menu here.

Atmosphere

The decor in Jack and Jo’s seems imprinted with subliminal messages to stop and enjoy the view. Midnight blue walls contrast with a copper-hued ceiling while large photographs punched with color blur the lines between scrapbooks and pop art. The stars of these photos are the restaurant’s namesakes.

A streetscape complete with lights in tiny windows and a crescent moon against a nighttime sky accents the back of this long, narrow dining room, just above the bar. Vinyl table coverings hang in gentle folds, effectively imitating cloth without the mess or stress, and casual elegance abounds in this place.

Among the other beverage options from water to wines are Boylan’s Cane Colas, a line of soft drinks sweetened with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. This soda tastes familiar and unique at the same time, sweet and carbonated without mimicking the “other guys” in the market.

Restrooms are located in PJ’s, giving guests an excuse to check out a design scheme with Italian undercurrents. Rich hues of gold and umber cover the walls, while a mural of trees and fields offers hints of Tuscany.

John returned to his hometown of Mason City after traveling the country as a stand-up comedian, and today he speaks with a contagious passion for the business district and old architecture, using a photo album to illustrate the changes. Jack and Jo’s is a destination restaurant that draws customers from 60 miles away, he said, and Mason City is “in the middle of everywhere.”

To ask John about the restaurants he and his wife own is to ask him about the city and its revitalization, including a comedy club his friend is planning to open next door in the spring.

As much as John enjoys cooking, he said he is also looking forward to the arrival of a full-time chef, Murray Brigham, a culinary artist who “does so many things.” Brigham will give John more flexibility as he continues to spend time in the kitchen and on the floor. “We’ll make some changes, but we won’t freak anybody out,” he said, emphasizing they would offer their standard fare “and then some.”

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