Rodney and Kristi Ferguson left the bucolic tranquility of farming life in Magazine to wade intrepidly into their next act — rebooting Jahna's, an Airport Road Italian bistro they've revitalized with new concepts and the fulfillment of a dream long deferred.
The couple's progression from chicken farmers to restaurateurs seems like a non-sequitur, less so in the context of the inspiration that captivated Rodney while in the employ of Gambardella's Pasta Bella in Fairbanks, Alaska.
A culinary enclave in the forbidding hinterlands, the Gambardella's establishment planted the germ for Rodney to have his own Italian restaurant. The idea abided for 25 years until its full realization last October. It's allowed the cannoli cream he made for years on the farm to go public and poised Kristi's lasagna for a de- but later this year. Judging by the acclaim her cheesecake has garnered, it promises to be well-received. “It had always been my dream,” Rodney said. “It's just taken me a little bit longer than I thought to get there. I was in construction for 15 years and farmed for 10. I finally decided to do it.”
The response has been positive, as the couple's diligence and attention to detail are undoing perceptions that formed under the previous ownership.
“We're hearing great things,” Rodney said. “Two or three times a night, we hear `It's so much better than before. We love what you're doing.' It's been very encouraging for me.” Patrons calling ahead to inquire about the dress code is a vestige of those past perceptions. Jahna's 2.0 strives for unaffected elegance, retaining its predecessor's special-occasion niche while working to access a
“One of my biggest things is to try and get people to realize this is not just for a date night or an anniversary,” said Rodney, who has added children's and gluten-free menus. “People can come in as they are on a weeknight and enjoy a good meal that they don't have to spend $200 on.”
It's not that the new owners are downplaying the fine dining bona fides their predecessors established. They're hoping to underpin the stylistic trappings they inherited with the substance that an active ownership brings. They're intent on winning back locals estranged by standards that had slipped under the earlier regime.
“The biggest challenge is getting local people to come back and try us again,” Rodney said. “We've heard there were inconsistencies. We're trying to solve those and get people back in the door to try us again.”
The charm offensive includes a prix fixe menu that changes every few weeks. The five-course offering spans appetizer to dessert with complementary wine pairings in the works.
“It's a whole dining experience to come and spend the evening,” Rodney said. “It takes an hour and a half minimum to go through all five courses.”
Plans to source produce from a Bismarck grower reflects the couple's agrarian sensibility, one that endeavors to exclusively use organically grown fruits and vegetables. Wild game and grass-fed beef are also in the offing.
“To have somebody local, who's going to be growing exactly what we're needing, and actually growing specifically for us, is pretty exciting,” Rodney said. “… I know people are very interested in that — knowing where their food is coming from, that it's sustainable and naturally raised.”
The stuffed chicken breast with riccotta and sun-dried tomatoes, pictured at left, is a fan favorite at Jahna's.
Diners can top off their five-course meal with a generous serving of strawberry cheesecake.