Steel Magnolia Blooms, Offering Fresh Flavors

Steel+Magnolia%27s+jerk+chicken+bowl+is+one+of+Chef+Shontae+Jackson%27s+many+fresh+takes+on+classic+comfort+dishes.+

Courtesy of Steel Magnolia

Steel Magnolia’s jerk chicken bowl is one of Chef Shontae Jackson’s many fresh takes on classic comfort dishes.

Dressed in my light overcoat, the battering northeast Ohio winds made the walk to 65 East College Street bitterly cold. The warmth of walking through the door of Oberlin’s newest restaurant, Steel Magnolia, was a welcome contrast. Featuring a safe-feeling, open-air dining space and expansive glass windows, the eatery — one of two Black-owned restaurants that opened in Oberlin over the last year — is comfortable and boasts excellent prices.

While the physical space offered respite from the cold weather, the real warmth came from the disposition of Steel Magnolia’s wonderful founder and head chef, Shontae Jackson. Jackson, a single mother of three, began her culinary journey growing up in Alabama. There she first planted the seeds of her cooking aspirations, learning about food from her family. She didn’t start her career as a chef — she worked first as a server and hostess. 

She learned the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, falling in love with the idea of owning her own restaurant during a stint at The Hotel at Oberlin. Jackson made her dreams a reality, graduating from culinary school before starting Steel Magnolia as a food truck in 2013. 

Since then, she has learned from chefs all over the world, adding new and exciting flavors to her menu along the way. After her food truck proved successful, Jackson soft-opened her first brick and mortar restaurant in Oberlin this past October, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Though her cooking is deeply rooted in the rich, spicy offerings of the Southern cuisine on which she was raised, Steel Magnolia’s menu boasts a diverse array of flavors including unique takes on traditional Mexican, Korean, and Jamaican dishes. I sampled three menu items: Aunt Ella Mae’s gumbo jambalaya, the signature jerk chicken, and peach cobbler for dessert. What stood out to me the most was the exceptional freshness of the ingredients used in every dish. Jackson prides herself on this aspect of her business, as she and her team work tirelessly to provide fresh, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients.

The spice of the gumbo jambalaya certainly excited my taste buds, but not to the point of discomfort. The rich smokiness of the sausage and shrimp provided a great contrast of flavors. Soft rice was balanced by the light crunchy snap of fresh peppers sprinkled on top, making every spoonful a new combination of textures. It tasted like lovingly prepared home-cooking, with a professional flair. 

The signature jerk chicken — served with coconut milk, Spanish-inspired rice, black beans, island-style vegetables, and shredded cheese — exemplified the panoply of flavors on the menu. The chicken and rice had some kick to it, but it was balanced out well by the light, natural sweetness of the coconut milk and mixed vegetables. The richness of the shredded cheese and coconut milk rounded out the bite — and thanks, once again, to the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the chef, the flavors and textures were perfectly matched. I just wanted to keep eating. 

I tried the peach cobbler last, and it provided a perfectly sweet ending to my time at Steel Magnolia. The warmed peaches and light pastry crust made for a melt-in-your-mouth dynamic duo. Maybe I would have liked a little more crunch or flakiness to the pastry on the cobbler, but I honestly feel like I’m nitpicking — it’s shockingly difficult to find anything critical to say in this critique. Everything I tried was delicious, using surprising combinations of fresh ingredients and spices to create harmonious flavors. With great service to match, I look forward to returning in the near future. I barely scratched the surface of Steel Magnolia’s extensive menu, and I plan to taste as many dishes as I can. 

Perhaps most importantly, Jackson’s food is sincere, genuine, and rooted in her story as much as her training. Her menu honors her Southern roots while highlighting her culinary abilities and techniques. The Steel Magnolia team’s commitment to providing customers with friendly service and quality cooking is undeniable. Through all obstacles — pandemic included — Jackson has continued to support her family, create her food, and realize her vision for the future. There is no doubt in my mind that with the quality of its food and service, and the exceptional passion behind it, Steel Magnolia is here to stay. You can view Steel Magnolia’s website here, or visit Steel Magnolia at 65 E College St.