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Bites in Oshkosh: Jeff's on Rugby makes it a family affair

Aug. 21, 2013
 
Jeff's Golden Fried Chicken is broaster-style, which kept the breading crisp with a juicy inside, coupled with German Sinkers (dumplings) smothered with gravy.
Jeff's Golden Fried Chicken is broaster-style, which kept the breading crisp with a juicy inside, coupled with German Sinkers (dumplings) smothered with gravy. / Dennis Tondryk/for Oshkosh Northwestern Media
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The 10-ounce rib eye choice cut steak, topped with tantalizing onion tanglers and savory sautéed mushrooms, was combined with an optional side of fresh broiled sea scallops swimming in butter sauce to create a fantastic combination. / Dennis Tondryk/for Oshkosh Northwestern Media

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This writer had not been to Jeff’s since moving to the area several years ago, and a pleasant surprise was in store. Today Lisa and Phil Levine have taken off their gloves, multiplying the bill of fare with a feast to behold.

Quoting Phil: “Dining at Jeff’s is like bumping into an old friend.” Whether you are meeting a group out for drinks and dinner, gathering the family to celebrate, or simply enjoying dinner for two, one can cozy up to the bar for Happy Hour or meander to the dining room for food, fun and lively conversation.

Located on the corner of 10th Avenue and Rugby Street, this southside location is set in one of Oshkosh’s earliest neighborhoods. Rich in history, the building dates back to the 1880s. It is located in the vicinity of the Osborn house, built in 1844, and is the oldest surviving house in Oshkosh. The building which houses Jeff’s began as a general store with living quarters in this German, working class neighborhood.

Legend has it that this establishment was one of the first taverns to offer Friday fish frys. Lisa’s family has a history with the site dating back to the 1880s. Folklore has it that in this building Lisa’s great-grandpa, John Phillip, suffered a stroke and passed on while leaving this southside tavern.

Phil and Lisa are Oshkosh natives and began with a restaurant romance. Levine worked at Jansen’s in the ‘70s where he met his co-worker, Lisa, and bowled with Lisa’s brother, Dave, who suggested to Phil that Lisa was someone he should get to know better. Need I say more; this relationship lead to new titles of husband and wife.

Jeff Jansen the proprietor, (a consummate restaurateur) acquired this second location in the late ‘80s and named it, Jeff’s on Rugby. Jansen asked Levine to manage this new acquisition. Phil agreed, and was presented with a contract. Thinking it was a management contract, to his surprise the agreement was for Phil to take ownership.

Quoting from the movie “The Godfather,” Phil was made “an offer he couldn’t refuse,” not as just an employee, but an owner of Jeff’s. Phil said, “I knew how to mix drinks, wait on customers, and properly set a table.” But to run this bar and food festival as an owner was a whole other story.

Phil brought on board a smart, energetic back of the house manager, Chris Hittman, an Oshkosh native, to continually develop and refine menu offerings. Levine and Hittman know the way around crowd pleasers and they state, “Don’t overthink the menu. There is nothing more upscale than American comfort food.”

This menu is a culinary experiment without ruining the classics. First up, a 10 ounce rib-eye choice cut steak, grilled to perfection, topped with tantalizing onion tanglers and savory sautéed mushrooms. The steak was combined with an optional side of fresh broiled sea scallops swimming in butter sauce to create a fantastic combination.

When ordering steak, ask about “Bistro style” and have it crusted with roasted garlic and peppercorns, topped with portabella mushrooms and Asaigo cheese. For a potato side, the seasoned steak-cut potato wedges are crisp with a tender interior deep-fried broaster style. Crisp, fresh asparagus was added to round out a hearty entrée. The steak was juicy, delectable and deceptively simple. Phil commented, “Serve exceptionally prepared dishes and your customers will be back — with their friends.” Come hungry for this feast.

Unburdened by excessive ingredients, Chris took fresh salmon and smothered it in a sherry dill sauce, topped with green onions and fresh sautéed mushrooms. Prepared properly, this coral-colored fish is tender and delectable, the sauce was creamy, complex and subtle, allowing the aromatic dill to tickle the senses. Hittman was right on the money with the preparation and flavor.

Jeff’s Golden Fried Chicken was moist and tender and made me want to ask for more. Preparation is broaster-style which kept the breading crisp with a juicy inside, coupled with German Sinkers (dumplings) smothered with gravy qualifies this to go on my “must try” dish selection. Broasted style chicken, an Oshkosh mainstay on Sundays, has an alternative with the Bistro style prime rib sandwich crusted with cracked pepper and garlic.

Jeff’s offers a host of other daily specials; Tuesday is steak night, Wednesday prime rib and shrimp alfredo, and for a change of pace, a Thursday special is deep fried bluegill. Saturday’s bill of fare includes a tenderloin fillet with buttered mushrooms. What would Fridays be without a tavern style Wisconsin fish fry featuring fresh lake perch? Make sure you arrive early and thirsty for Jeff’s classic cocktails prior to enjoying a satisfying feast.

Good Food, Good Friends, Good Times is a trademark of Jeff’s on Rugby. Enjoy an environment that will make you feel right at home; I know you’ll be greeted by the friendly staff making you feel relaxed and with service that is warm and authentically Oshkosh.

Jeff’s on Rugby is located at 1005 Rugby St. Open Tuesdays through Sundays at 11 a.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays 4:30 p.m. to close. For more information, call (920) 231-7450.

Dennis Tondryk is a freelance restaurant reviewer for the Oshkosh Northwestern. Email him at bitesfoxvalley@aim.com.

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