J. Christian’s Restaurant, Wallingford
★★½ (Very Good to Superior)
Can architecture enhance romance? The Romantics would have it so and they may be right. After all, would the staircase scene in Gone with the Wind be as heart-flutteringly romantic if Rhett Butler carried Scarlett O’Hara off in an elevator? And where would Romeo and Juliet be without a balcony to keep them tantalizingly close but apart?
Grand staircases and balconies being in rather short supply these days, it’s sort of a kick to encounter both the minute you enter J. Christian’s Restaurant in Wallingford.
This is a smart, lively restaurant ensconced in a 1920s bank building, the restoration of which took three years and was described with youthful enthusiasm by Dana, our waiter. “When we took down the ceiling, we found a skylight and decided to keep it.” New stained glass was commissioned to replace the old. The Tiffany-type chandelier is original. The staircase is sweeping and the view of Main Street and Simpson Court from the balcony at sunset is fantastic.
J. Christian’s calls its cuisine New American. Perusing the menu, I detected a hint of the South. By meal’s end, I was whistling “Dixie.” Call it New American with a Southern accent—starting with she-crab soup, a rich bisque thick enough to stand a spoon up in, boldly redolent of crab, laced with sherry. Very Old World. In contrast, a salad of baby greens, Asian pear and candied walnuts with goat-cheese fritters reminded us how refreshing New American riffs can be.
Jumping ahead, my friend Ed laid claim to an entrée of shrimp and grits with fried okra. How Deep South can you get? We promised to taste that later. At the moment we were bent on sampling a sparkling, cutting-edge appetizer of seared tuna, with edamame salad spiked with pickled-ginger sorbet. Nor could we resist gobbling up a Virginia peanut salad, a cornucopia of satisfyingly munchy old-friend ingredients—romaine, watercress, cranberries, peanuts, apples and bacon with roasted-peanut dressing.
Okra lovers (yes, they exist) insist that, properly prepared, this sometimes slimy veggie can be delicious. Jonathan Harris, J. Christian’s chef, proved the point with crispy-crunchy, feather-light tidbits of french-fried okra dotting a plate of marinated shrimp and creamy Asiago-cheese grits. Like all the entrées we tried, this plate was heaped, in this instance, with a hefty portion of Brussels sprouts and bacon hash, not to mention red-eye gravy.
Southern as all this is, J. Christian’s menu was too intriguingly international to stay south of the Mason-Dixon line. With a whole section of pastas to choose from, we lucked out with cavatelli con pesto, a simple and simply delicious rendition of one of my favorite Italian dishes, the pine nuts toasted, the Pecorino Romano tangy.
There’s also a chophouse menu featuring “100 percent Black Angus beef” filet, New York strip steak and a 14-ounce rib-eye—with two sides and a sauce priced from $18 to $30. But we were here to check out J. Christian’s more imaginative fare.
Accordingly we ordered blackened mahi mahi, an ambitious mishmash of fish, sweet potato mash, haricots verts, grilled pineapple salsa and vanilla beurre blanc. Shades of Hawaii with wonderful ingredients singing flavorful tunes, but competing with one another and blurring the total effect. Not bad—just not as crisp and clear as other offerings.
Short ribs, for example, falling-off-the-bone tender, tasted right at home with fried onions, roasted kabocha squash, Brussels sprout leaves and a ton of Guinness gravy to sop up. Kabocha squash? We couldn’t find any. We consulted our waiter, who pointed out a sprinkling of bright orange cubes—tiny, tiny cubes, smaller than green peas. This is a chef who goes to the trouble, chopping and dicing, crushing and slicing—even steaming individual Brussels sprout leaves for garnish. We especially liked his house-made savory sorbets and a spicy peach chutney served with center-cut pork chops.
For dessert, we got a taste of New Orleans in the form of hot, yeasty beignets and a twist on Bananas Foster—monumental portions of both. The beignets were freshly made but a bit too chewy to melt in the mouth. Bananas Foster bread pudding consisted of bananas with chocolate bread pudding and caramel sauce. We loved the S’mores sundae, a tasty homemade brownie with vanilla ice cream, marshmallow sauce and toasted graham cracker crumbs.
Withal, greatness was lurking in the kitchen and delighted us when it arrived: A ceramic baking dish of Lyman Orchards apples under a streusel-crumb topping served bubbling hot fresh from the oven, with vanilla gelato—billed simply as “fruit crisp of the day”—blew us all away.
Not everything worked but everything we tasted was fresh and carefully prepared. No shortcuts were taken. If the entrées had a fault, it would be overgenerosity. As a result, presentation suffered. It’s just not possible to jam this much on a plate and make it look pretty. But nouvelle won’t cut it in a recession. The order of the day is a lot of bang for the buck. J. Christian delivers—with a dash of romance and a chef who, unlike Rhett Butler, does give a damn.
Incidental intelligence: In some cultures, kabocha squash is revered as an aphrodisiac. Happy Valentine’s Day.
9 North Main St., Wallingford
Sunday and Monday 4 to 9, Tuesday through Thursday 11 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10. Wheelchair access (first floor). Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $12, entrées $16 to $26, desserts $5 to $8.