Yet how is it that other, older restaurants thrive, even surpass, their yearling counterparts with no showy promotion, just reputation? J's Fresh Seafood in Hyde Park knows the secret. For nearly 20 years, J's example of dining excellence has set the standard by which other restaurants are judged.
Located on the first level of The Regency on Madison Road, one might expect strictly an older dining crowd. But that's not what we found on a recent weekday evening. Although the place wasn't crowded, there were several tables full of both young and old, couples and singles scattered throughout the dining room.
J's reputation has made me think of it for special occasions only. I mean, this is where the celebrities choose to dine when they come to town. Chef/owner Jimmy Gherardi is a local celebrity.
I envisioned stuffy waiters and maybe a snooty maitre d' ushering me to a table near the restrooms. Yet my experiences at J's proved me wrong. The dining room is classically upscale with white linen table clothes, but feels inviting, not stuffy. Touches like colorful linen napkins and fun, hand-painted sideboards lighten the mood. And the staff is far from snooty. When I arrived before my guest, I was greeted by no less than three servers, all pleasantly chatty, who checked on me during my brief wait.
Equally impressive was how smoothly our server converted from informal and talkative to politely unobtrusive and patient once my friend arrived. She and I continued to gab and catch up on months of gossip, ignoring our menus for 20 minutes while he allowed us to linger, never pressuring us to order, but always remaining accessible.
When we finally took a breath, we perused the appetizers.
We also eyed the Crab Cakes with Red Pepper Mustard Sauce ($8.95). Like the other appetizers that passed by our table, it looked tempting. I even considered the entrée version for my dinner but was torn by the many other offerings.
We both enjoyed our house salads ($5.50), huge plates filled with mixed organic field greens, shredded carrots and cucumber and fresh tomato slices. The house dressing was a sweet, white balsamic sun-dried cranberry vinaigrette, unlike any balsamic vinaigrette I've had before. Served with a basket of fresh bread, I could have easily stopped here, feeling quite fulfilled.
But we didn't come here for the salad. Hey, they don't put "Fresh Seafood" in the name for nothin'.
J's is famous for its seafood supremacy. Sure, you can find fish on menus all across town. But J's sets the benchmark for combining fresh, simple, classic ingredients and preparing them to perfection. On a previous visit, I experienced just what that means when I devoured my Swordfish Steak (10 oz., $23.95; 6 oz., $19.95). It was the best swordfish I've ever had moist and tender but rich and flavorful, and not at all fishy. It ruined me. I can't have swordfish anywhere else.
Although seafood is the star here, meat-eaters will be delighted with many choices from the grill, including Pork Tenderloin with Sundried Cranberry Merlot Sauce ($16.95) or Filet Mignon with Zinfandel Garlic Glaze ($24.95). There also are many pasta choices (with or without seafood or chicken).
On this visit, I had a craving for pasta, and our server recommended the Crab Meat Fettuccini Alfredo ($18.95). I was a little skeptical, having had this dish many times at many other places and always feeling like a tub of butter when I left. But J's version isn't heavy. It's creamy but not overpowering, and the crabmeat is tender and delicious.
My guest chose another of our server's recommendations: the Tilapia in Parchment with Wild Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Leeks ($19.95). Although it a minor challenge to actually get to the goods, she enjoyed the flaky white fish and the tender vegetables. And she was pleasantly surprised when she discovered the bed of creamy mashed potatoes underneath.
For dessert, we sampled the Lemon Sour Cream Pie ($6.25) and the Crème Brulee ($6.50). The pie was tart and sweet, a nice combination of flavors. The custard of the crème brulee was rich and creamy, but the crisp caramelized topping was overburnt in areas, leaving a bitter taste. (We just worked around it.)
This was only my second experience at J's, but I'm already hooked. While others come and go, J's will remain a classic. From the impeccable service to the deliciously prepared fish, it's easy to see why it has become the benchmark for local seafood and excellent dining. ©
J's Fresh Seafood
Go: 2444 Madison Road, Hyde Park
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday, 5:30-11 p.m.; Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Moderate to Expensive
Payment: All Major Credit Cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Salads, grilled portabello mushroom, penne pasta dishes
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