Comfort for fans of Las Olas Café

Considered one of the most romantic restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, 20-year-old Las Olas Café was forced to close in May when the landlord wouldn’t renew its lease. Fans fretted, but owner Paula Pace wasn’t about to give up.

Along with LOC chef Ernesto Rado and Scott Kraft, her business partner in Wilton Wings, Pace opened Mason Jar on North U.S. 1.

In a tight economy and a location that lacks the allure of Las Olas, the team changed its focus along with its address, switching from fine dining to upscale comfort food.

Done up with knickknacks, wainscoting and floral curtains, The Mason Jar isn’t as atmospheric as the café with its twinkling courtyard. But for diners looking for really good food and value in a family-friendly setting, it’s a welcome destination.

Christmas wreaths, lights and poinsettias make you feel like you’re home for the holidays, especially when savoring dishes like short ribs, fried green tomatoes and green bean casserole. Paula Deen would approve.

Servers – most of them from the Las Olas locale — are warm and friendly. When ours saw that I had forgotten my glasses, he cleaned his and handed them over so I could read the menu.

Café fans will find favorites like walnut-crusted mahi-mahi, pork chops and roasted duckling, but new hits are grandmotherly dishes like chicken pot pie, meatloaf and chicken-fried steak. As a plaque on the wall says, “Happiness is homemade,” and you can expect from-scratch cooking.

What you shouldn’t expect is a bread basket. “Mother always told you not to fill up on bread,’’ says Pace, channeling the place’s homespun charm. If you miss it (and you probably won’t, given the generous portions), order the corn spoon bread.

The chef’s hearty tomato, blue cheese and bacon soup was perfect on recent chilly night, the intense flavor of roasted tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and celery melding with the tangy cheese, smoky bacon and a little cream. Another night, the crab and corn chowder was equally rich and flavorful, but had cooled off before reaching the table.

We loved a starter of flaky phyllo triangles filled with goat cheese, cranberries and mushrooms with a garnish of blackberry mango. Fried kosher dill pickles are another fun way to begin. My Southern husband prefers the slices a bit thinner, but he still devoured the batch with its light batter coating.

The aroma of chicken pot pie is comforting to your core, and The Mason Jar’s is a visual treat, too. We paused to admire the light and puffy crust before diving into slices of white meat, carrots, peas and potatoes in a creamy base. Hints of cumin and coriander reflect the Peruvian-born Rado’s flair with what might otherwise be everyday fare.

Other classics include Janice’s meatloaf, a recipe from Kraft’s mom, topped with a beefy demi-glace. The walnut-crusted mahi-mahi was nice and moist, but the topping of caramelized apples and onions was too sweet for us.

Entrees come with two sides from a list that includes green bean casserole garnished with fried onion crisps, glazed organic carrots and the surprise hit, brussels sprouts, the leaves separated, sautéed in garlic butter and sprinkled with pistachios.

“Only if you clean your plate can you ask your server about our desserts,’’ the menu says, but, of course, that isn’t the policy. We took home lots of leftovers and saved room for luscious treats like the strawberry chocolate cake (another recipe from Pace’s mom), chocolate bomba and frozen lemonade pie drizzled with a caramel sauce and served with fresh strawberries. It’s a taste of home, wherever that may be.


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