J's is appointed with somber steakhouse-style banquettes of dark wood and forest green leather, but the atmosphere feels extra spacious thanks to a towering, exposed beam, A-frame ceiling. The room exudes brightness via a strip of colorful mural that runs along the room's perimeter, a well-lighted open kitchen, and picture windows that afford a view of the outdoor dining deck and waterway. Some diners arrive via yacht, but because I was unsure of the parking situation, I left mine at home.
J's culinary ambitions go beyond merely providing flavorful fodder to sober up Shooters' post-happy hour crowd -- but not much higher. The chef is Jimmy Carey, the cuisine is referred to as "New American" and the concept is similar to other large corporate-run family-style restaurants sweeping the country: Don't reach, don't challenge, don't try to cook the finest food possible -- just give the people what they want, adeptly prepared, at a decent price. J's Waterfront Grille successfully achieves these humble gastronomic goals.
While the cuisine may lack vision, passion, and imagination, such places often compensate with wildly creative alcoholic drinks. J's presents a martini made from tequila soaked with cactus pears, and ice cream cocktails such as "mounds bar" and "strawberry shortcake." Appetizers? Shrimp cocktail, artichoke and spinach dip, chili -- stop me if I say something new -- gumbo, quesadilla, crab cakes....
Actually, the crab cakes, the most ubiquitous of these starters, were the best I've had in some time. The duo of petite, delicate disks came with crisp crusts fried to a light golden brown, the interior moist with sweet morsels of lump crab heightened with just the right spike of seasonings (Old Bay included). A creamy pool of grainy mustard sauce lifted the cakes to a higher plane.
Crispy calamari and shrimp were likewise fried in crunchy fashion, but then tossed in a sweet Thai chili sauce that robbed them of their crispness during the trek from kitchen to table. Shellfish aficionados can also contemplate daily raw bar selections; the seasonal catch currently includes lobster tails, Dungeness crab (the pride of the Pacific), and a few varieties of oyster.
Salad Caprese was laid out like a deck of cards: thick white slices of fresh mozzarella cheese shuffled with tomatoes, whose ripe red color promised more flavor than was delivered. The olive oil was another broken promise: the menu offered it, and the dry salad sorely needed it; instead the salad came capped with a clump of pasty pesto sauce. Better off beginning with a caesar or chopped salad, available with dinner for $4. The caesar was excellent: snappy cold romaine leaves tossed in a light, lemony dressing with buttery croutons and wisps of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you're dining as a couple, you may want to order just one -- the serving is generous.
Main courses are typical of a grille or steak house -- one-third of the 15 offerings are varying steak cuts of 21-day aged Black Angus beef, the most highly touted a house specialty of bone-in prime rib. Steak houses used to mark their reputations on the size of this fatty cut of beef, but nowadays, we know things we didn't back then, like it's not healthy to consume a piece of meat larger than a toaster oven. The $32 steak at J's was two inches thick and nine inches long -- I have no idea how many pounds it weighed, though I did notice that the leftover portion was so heavy I needed to shift the package between hands on my way to the car. Some diners like gargantuan steaks, but it would make sense to offer a smaller cut for those who prefer to eat sanely (speaking of which, how come so few of our local restaurants offer organically raised beef, which by law cannot be fed animal byproducts?).
Nevertheless, the prime rib arrived at the table boasting all the attributes you could wish for -- it was lusciously rare, admirably marbled, tender, and tasty. Unfortunately, it sat in a puddle of salty, paprika-intense beef jus that overwhelmed the meat's flavor. I would rather have applied some steak sauce myself, but our waiter was in too much of a rush to offer any. He always seemed to have something more important to attend to than us; he read off the nightly specials as if saying farewell from a train pulling out of the station. Then he was gone. As I ate the beef, I scanned the room for someone to bring me some A-1 -- the waiter was nowhere to be seen; the floor manager, engaged in conversation with a table of diners she apparently knew, neglected to look up into my imploring eyes. It also took a while to get dessert menus and the check.
A second visit brought a different waiter -- this one chatty, but attentive and swift. She informed us that the smoked chicken entrée was prepared "in a real smoker in the kitchen -- no Liquid Smoke here!" The half-bird came heavily smoked to a succulent doneness, the skin darkly browned and munificently rubbed with herbs. The jus was just as smoky, though -- a mellower or sweeter accompaniment could have countered this intensity with a different dimension of taste.
J's menu rounds out with pork and veal chops, BBQ ribs, a couple of pastas, and a trio of seafoods -- Asian-style tuna, herb-crusted sea bass, and a pristine square of sautéed grouper finished with tequila-lime sauce and avocado salsa -- undeniably toothsome, even if it did taste like something you'd eat at an Americanized Mexican restaurant.
Entrées come with choice of one side. Starch picks are sweet potato fries, "sun rice" flecked with tomatoes and onions, mashed or baked potatoes, and noteworthy steak fries -- four hand-cut wedges of hot, fresh potatoes. Vegetable options are creamed spinach and a medley of zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, and red onions -- not very exciting, but properly cooked and caringly seasoned.
Desserts, too, were composed with aplomb. Key lime pie possessed a thin graham crust and the airiest of lime custard fillings, and flourless Godiva cake was as densely textured as a terrine, with a deeply rich bittersweet-chocolate taste.
It isn't incumbent that you start your day at Shooters and finish at J's -- you can also work it by dining at J's and then loading up at Shooters. If you choose the latter, I'd suggest you leave the yacht at dock and take the water taxi home.