It’s back and it’s beautiful
The west side of the Country Club Plaza has witnessed a culinary emergence that began with the boutique hotel restaurant Rosso, followed by Jax Fish House. The icing on the cake is wine-centric JJ’s, the latest addition that completes this mini destination dining strip. But JJ’s isn’t new to the neighborhood. Its original location, across the street from the new Polsinelli Building, was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 2013. But like the mythical bird rising from the ashes, JJ’s has returned, keeping all the things you loved about the original.
JJ’s, one of the longest continuously operating independent restaurants in Kansas City, opened in 1985 by restaurateur Jimmy Frantzè, is all about good food, comfort—and the wine. A Grand Award from Wine Spectator (a very serious wine award—fewer than a hundred restaurants get them in a given year) guarantees that you won’t go thirsty here. And thanks to an incredibly knowledgeable and helpful wait staff, you will be guided to the perfect glass or bottle to fit the occasion, your palate and your wallet. You can spend anywhere from $20 on a bottle of wine, all the way up to $19,000. (Really, they have about a dozen at the $19,000 level, but that’s part of getting that Wine Spectator award.) The important thing is that JJ’s has an unbelievably comprehensive list of wines that will enhance your dining experience no matter the price point.
My first experience at the original JJ’s was tagging along as a voyeur taster on an evening of “I can buy a bigger bottle of wine than you can” that ended in no one really remembering what had been tasted and frightful hangovers all around. Every now and then, it’s nice to have friends with extremely large expense accounts. Just don’t make a habit of them.
The new JJ’s feels expansive without losing the comfortable intimacy of the original. Honey-colored wooden chairs with woven seats, lots of linen, high ceilings and a beautiful set of barn doors that can divide the space into private dining areas all lend a feeling of coziness to the rooms. And of course they use only Riedel stemware for their wines.
I spoke with Joe DiGiovanni and Matt Nichols, wine director of JJ’s, about the list and about their ideal pairings for the dishes I’m reviewing. At the time of my visit, the wine list and cellar were being inventoried and reviewed for submission to the next Wine Spectator competition. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 different bottles on the list, and everything must be one hundred percent accurate for submission to the competition. Joe and Matt’s suggestions, both wines available by the glass and wines to dream about by the bottle, are included with the discussion of each dish.
Dining at JJ’s will not put you outside your comfort zone. The food is more complex than at a good steak house, but you don’t have to worry about dodging the chef’s whims and flights of fancy either. No foam, no dehydrated powder of sea urchin, no exploding puffs of liquid nitrogen frozen lavender honey or drizzles of a salted caramel, chocolate, red wine and gooseberry reduction with mint. Good solid dishes, many based in the classic French repertoire with a little California thrown in, are the essence of the menu and with good reason. JJ’s is ultimately a destination for those who love good wine, and the food at JJ’s couldn’t be more wine friendly.
We began with the Paco Shrimp, remarkably large gulf shrimp stuffed with creamy horseradish and then wrapped in bacon. Deep-fried, the shrimps had that perfectly crunchy yet moist texture, the richness balanced by a light Dijon mustard and white wine sauce and a swirl of sweet roasted bell pepper puree. I wouldn’t necessarily cross the street to eat a shrimp, but I often sample shrimp dishes on menus because a famous chef once told me that “You can’t have too many shrimp dishes on a menu. People love them.” Ever since, I always sample shrimp dishes for reviews, out of deference to you, dear reader—and the shrimps are starting to grow on me. This shrimp dish might be a reason to cross the street. (Suggested wine pairings: Joullian Chardonnay, $10 glass, Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, $80 bottle.)
The steamed mussels in white wine with leeks, shallots, fresh thyme and the faintest hint of curry is another extremely wine friendly appetizer, thanks to the cream and the light hand with the curry. (Suggested wines: Tresor Brut Rose, sparkling from the Loire Valley, $14 glass, Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose, $150 bottle.) Equally friendly is the textbook onion soup gratinee, a luscious soup of candy-sweet caramelized onions in a full bodied Burgundy beef broth, capped with a slab of country bread topped with oozing melty Gruyere and milky Grana Padano cheese. The next time we have a Midwestern blizzard, I want this soup. (Suggested pairings: Dolcetto d’Alba Sori Paitin, $8 glass, Paul Hobbs Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, $100 bottle.)
The arugula salad was a bit weak, not the stated locally grown organic arugula, dressed with a highly acidic vinaigrette, extra virgin olive oil and shaved Parmesan. I didn’t really expect local greens in December in Missouri anyway. It must have been an off night for the dish, because I can’t think of any wine that this salad could accompany. However, the other salad sampled was a success, even in winter. I have always had a weakness for a good iceberg wedge salad, and JJ’s is good. With crumbles of applewood-smoked bacon and blue cheese, rich and tangy buttermilk ranch dressing, sweet Vidalia onion, and heirloom beefsteak tomato, how can you go wrong? Well, you could definitely go wrong with out-of-season tomatoes, and those we had were memorable only in their mealy texture and weak flavor. (In Italy, land of the tomato, tomatoes used in salads are frequently much less ripe than we use them here, but they are never served in their mealy state. Instead, they are often roasted, maybe with a little garlic or herbs and oil to concentrate and accentuate the flavors of the tomato and mitigate the flaws. It’s a little tweak that could launch this salad to a whole new level in wintertime.) The rest of the salad—fabulous. My dining companion actually said, “Hey, save some more of that for me.” I did, begrudgingly. (Suggested pairing: Vietti Arneis, $9 glass.)
A dish we really enjoyed was the ahi tuna filet marinated in oil, sesame and garlic. It was grilled a perfect rare, served with JJ’s original teriyaki sauce and a refreshing sauté of julienned snow peas and shiitake mushrooms. The sweetness of the lightly crunchy snow peas was a lovely foil to the savory tuna, rendering the teriyaki sauce entirely unnecessary. It’s one of those ostensibly guilt-free dishes that make that second glass of wine at lunch seem like a completely rational idea. (Suggested pairings: Macmurray Pinot Noir, $9 glass, Cakebread Pinot Noir, $100 bottle.)
I also loved the grilled beef tenderloin medallions au poivre. One of the best values on the menu, it reminded me just how delicious this classic combination can be. Start with a good cut of meat grilled to your taste, add a bit of char—still red inside—then coat it in a sauce of spicy peppercorns, aromatic cognac and silken cream. Ours was served with a side of plump, grilled asparagus whose fresh green flavors contrasted pleasantly to all of the richness. It is a perfect dish to pair with a good red wine. (Suggested pairings: Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, $10 glass, Opus One 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, $300 bottle.)
In addition to great steaks, wild boar has a notable presence on the menu. While the housemade grilled wild-boar sausage with spicy coarse mustard and mild horseradish blinis and apple was a bit dry, the boar really shines in their wild-boar Cuban sandwich. Available only at lunch, JJ’s take on the classic Cuban ham and cheese begins with the requisite shaved ham, yellow ballpark mustard, Swiss cheese, and pickles, then takes it one step further with roasted wild boar replacing the usual roasted pork. The boar gives a richness and an unexpected complexity to this sandwich that would otherwise have been good but not extraordinary. All those great ingredients inside the crispy pressed Farm to Market roll made this one of my favorite dishes. (Suggested pairings—your favorite beer, or Adelsheim Pinot Noir, $9 glass, or Ayres Pinot Noir $70, bottle. With the boar pasta, a good Chianti Classico or the Antinori Guado al Tasso Super Tuscan, $160 bottle.)
If you enjoy drinking fine wines with or after dinner, frequently the transition from savory dishes to dessert can be less than fulfilling. Desserts can be cloyingly sweet, highly spiced or simply unable to forge a relationship with the wine or the rest of the meal. I often forgo dessert, preferring to reserve my sugar-loaded treats for breakfast (probably not the best idea, but at least I’m eating breakfast) or an afternoon pick-me-up. Our glasses were empty, so we decided to conclude our lunch with Jude’s Rum Cake. Jude is not their pastry chef but the mother-in-law of baker Craig Adcock, maker of fine rum cakes sourcing local ingredients, and barbecue. Adcock has taken this Italian-American rum-soaked sugar bomb classic to new heights of buttery deliciousness. Nothing on the plate but a generous slice of cake. I suggest a cup of coffee. JJ’s suggests a glass of one of their many ports, well over $25 by the glass. It’s another little specialty of theirs.
This is one of those restaurants where you go for the comfort of delicious, reliable food, and above all, a place to have a memorable glass of wine. Alone, with a significant other, or with a group, JJ’s is sure to welcome you and remind you to slow down and enjoy the important things.
900 West 48th Place, Suite 110 (take a left immediately inside the entrance to the Polsinelli Building)
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday through Thursday 5 until 10:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5 until 11:00 p.m.