J. Paul's: beyond a saloon Review: New Harborplace restaurant has more to offer than burgers and brew.

November 16, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

The restaurant space in Harborplace where Wayne's Bar-b-que used to be -- Wayne's has moved to the Pratt Street Pavilion -- now has a sleek new look. It features an antique bar, fireplace, exposed brick, wooden booths and period fixtures. With such improvements the recently opened J. Paul's has attempted to turn the glass and metal exoskeleton of Harborplace into an old-fashioned saloon.

It works well enough. It would have worked even better in a wonderful old rowhouse, but you can't have everything. And if I were J. Paul's parent company, Capital Restaurant Concepts (which also owns Paolo's), I probably would have opted for Harborplace's sure-fire customer base, too.

Like its sibling, Paolo's, J. Paul's is a mini-chain restaurant. The original opened in Georgetown in 1980 and soon became known for its crab cakes, hamburgers and house brew. But wait, there's more -- like a duckling salad with spiced pecans and a molasses and fig vinaigrette. (Don't even think of substituting ranch dressing.) Or seared breast of chicken with a creamy apple and leek compote. Or the 16-spice pork chop.

Still, J. Paul's is a saloon at heart; and being a saloon is what it does best. The beer drinker among us loved J. Paul's smooth amber ale, but the wine drinkers weren't so happy -- in spite of a respectable little wine list. Our waitress told us, "If you want a Chardonnay, I recommend the Riesling." And when we ordered something different, she brought the Riesling anyway.

You can enjoy the house brew in J. Paul's signature amber ale and Cheddar soup, a creamy concoction that's silky smooth with twice the flavor of most cheese soups. Or share the enticing chipotle chicken quesadilla with goat cheese and Cheddar, spiced with the chili it's named after. The presentation, including guacamole, salsa and sour cream, is nothing short of elegant.

Part of the turn-of-the-century saloon dining experience is certainly scarfing down raw oysters; and J. Paul's offers several varieties on the half shell, all of them plump, briny-sweet and fresh-tasting.

J. Paul's crab cakes are every bit as good as advertised, although I was skeptical when our waitress said, "They are 99 percent lump crab meat and 1 percent Japanese bread crumbs." Run that by me again? But you can't argue with snowy lumps of backfin, the barest amount of filler, perfectly seasoned and finished off with a golden crust.

J. Paul's ribs are a specialty, our waitress told us, and indeed they were fine. It's an enormous portion of back ribs, tender but a bit drier than you may be used to -- I liked them. The barbecue sauce is quite spicy, and adds flavor without overpowering the meat. Unfortunately, the kitchen slopped the accompanying baked beans half in a bowl and half on the plate and the french fries were heavily over-salted. Surprising because most of the plates were presented with such flair.

You can't, I suppose, expect a saloon to do duck as well as it does ribs; but the mango and rum-glazed rotisseried duckling did sound appealing. The reality was a soggy half duck with a lot of bottled chutney on top. Sides of fresh spinach with blue PTC cheese and golden-crusted grits cakes helped to make up for it, though.

Desserts are homemade at J. Paul's, including the ice cream. Chocolate fanciers will be enthralled with a giant brownie covered in chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce; but I fell in love with the apple pie, made with what tasted like fresh apples and a good crust, with J. Paul's fine vanilla ice cream nestling close.

J. Paul's

Where: Light St. Pavilion, Harborplace

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees, $10.95-$19.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-659-1889

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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