A couple of weeks ago I gave you a First Bite impression of the new J. Alexander's, the upscale chain restaurant in the new Rialto strip on Sand Lake Road's Restaurant Row. I went back for a closer look and a second bite, and I liked what I tasted. I'd say I liked what I saw, but that wasn't so easy (I'll come back to that in a moment). Suffice to say that J. Alex serves fine, basic food, and it's a welcome addition to the Row's roster of good restaurants.
I don't think it's any secret that J. Alexander's is going after the Houston's market. Or at least the sort of person who likes Houston's food and atmosphere. I doubt that a restaurant in South Orlando will draw many of Houston's Winter Park regulars, but it may prevent some Bay Hillers and Windermerians from trekking up I-4 for a Houston's fix.
Just like Houston's, J. Alexander's doesn't accept reservations. But when I called, the chipper young woman who answered the phone said that guests can call ahead and get on the wait list before they leave home. That's better than nothing.
But there was not wait the evening my companion and I dined. We were greeted warmly by at least three hostesses -- one even stepped forward to open the door for us, a nice touch -- and were led into the dining room.
The dining room is not quite pitch black, but when you first enter, even at night, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. There are bright pin spots that illuminate each of the bare wood tabletops in the room, as well as some artwork, but little of the light spills over so you can actually see other people, including those at your own table. My dinner guest was in the shadows all evening. I felt like I was dining in a spy movie.
No sooner had we been seated than a voice came through the dark asking us if we'd like to order a drink. It was, we could tell from the sound of the voice, a young woman. We told her we would like to order a glass of wine but hadn't had a chance to look at the list yet. She then started asking what type of wine we wanted, if we liked dry or sweet, etc. She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but in too forceful a way. We asked if she could possibly give us a moment to look the list over and come back.
She left, and it would be five minutes before anyone else came back to take our order. (Were we being punished?) The next voice we heard belonged to an exuberant young man. He explained that he would be our server and that he knew someone had already taken our drink order. We explained that the mix-up and he apologized and quickly fetched our wines. In the meantime, we looked the menu over and commented about the meager offering of appetizers, which, now that I think about it, is another way J. Alexander's is like Houston's. We ordered the spinach con queso ($9) because neither egg rolls nor gigantic onion rings appealed to us. We ended up wishing we'd skipped the starter course altogether. The pot of dip was quite unexciting.
For our entrees, my friend ordered prime rib ($21) and I selected the cilantro shrimp ($17).
The prime rib (left) was a pretty impressive slab for supposedly only 12 ounces. But more impressive than the portion was the tenderness -- exactly the buttery texture you expect from good prime rib, which in this case was more likely USDA choice. The plate included a cup of jus for dipping -- I preferred the creamy horseradish sauce that was served on the side -- and a massive mountain of loosely mashed potatoes that were more like a pile of potato lumps. They were, however, quite tasty.
The only complaint I had with the cilantro shrimp was that the "black tigers" were a bit on the shrimpy side. And there were only 11 of them. My friend and I wondered what's the opposite of a baker's dozen? A stock broker's dozen? The shrimp were dusted with hot Cajun spices that overwhelmed the coolness of the cilantro, but I liked the flavor a lot. They were served on rice that had speckles of cilantro and was a bit al dente in texture, whether intended or not. An overflowing cup of MBC cole slaw was included, MBC standing for Maytag blue cheese, which gave the chunky slaw a wonderful salty note.
That was the kind of saltiness that was welcome, as opposed to the steak and fries ($19) I had discussed in a previous post where the meat was salty almost to the point of being inedible. Desserts, like most of the other items on the menu, are made in-house. We decided to share a slice of carrot cake ($6), which was a large, flat square that had been heated (nuked, perhaps, but it doesn't matter) and the cream cheese icing slathered on top. Big hunks of carrot were evidence that it was the real thing.
Service was excellent and showed good training. The manager was present in the dining room and greeted most tables.
The wine list is not huge but hits all the right bases. I again enjoyed the Santa Ema Reserve merlot from Maipo Valley, Chile; my guest had the Pine Ridge (CA) blend of chenin blanc and viognier.
By the end of the meal our eyes had adjusted to the surroundings and we were able to find our way out of the restaurant without a guide. I'm sure we'll find our way back again.