Few restaurants are fortunate enough to last a decade or more. Even fewer are able to come back for a second act. But that is exactly what JJ’s has done following the tragic explosion in 2013 that destroyed the popular West Plaza restaurant.
Now inside the Polsinelli Building just west of the Country Club Plaza, JJ’s has embarked on a new chapter that recaptures many of the hallmarks that have made it a fixture of the Kansas City dining scene for more than three decades.
The new space is a bigger, brighter version of the original, with décor that keeps the vibe fresh yet familiar. Local artist Michael Savage’s vibrant, colorful paintings are still featured throughout the bar and dining area. The art brings a welcome bit of brightness to the lightly colored walls and stone accents. The dining room and large patio have a European bistro vibe, while the darker bar area offers a more intimate, informal feel.
Signature dishes such as the Paco Shrimp and the JJ’s Pride 12-ounce filet are largely untouched by time, other than the higher dollar figures next to them on the menu. And, of course, the nationally recognized wine list is still there, with options ranging from affordable to absolutely extravagant.
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In fact, a meal at JJ’s can feel somewhat like a trip back in time, especially if you are, like me, someone who has dined there over the years. I could trace my personal timeline through the menu, from my first lobster tails as a child to my first legal martini at 21.
That same sense of nostalgia resonates through the food as well. But I think that many of the current diners — which seemed to skew to an older, well-off crowd on my visits — find that familiarity a comfort rather than a sign of age.
The popular Paco Shrimp appetizer ($15) was nearly exactly as I remembered it, including the presentation and seasoning. The four large and succulent horseradish-stuffed shrimp were wrapped in a smoky-salty bacon cocoon and served on a Dijon and white wine sauce dotted with red pepper puree. It’s a combination that still pleases, with the horseradish lending a subtle spice.
The flavors, however, were a bit too subtle for my tastes. Most dishes at JJ’s follow a similar path, with solid execution in cooking and less aggressive seasoning, despite a new era of bolder, more assertive flavors. JJ’s isn’t really the place to go if you are looking for trendy fusion cuisine or the latest hipster protein, although I do recommend the wild boar ragu ($28).
The menu offers scattered hints of Asian influence in the tasty, sesame-marinated seared ahi tuna, which is served in appetizer and entrée forms. The fish is of a high quality and was seared with skill to leave a luscious, rare center that allowed the tuna to speak for itself.
Most dishes, though, are from the European canon, leaning largely toward classic Italian and French influences, like the French onion soup, a rich, gooey affair redolent with Gruyere cheese and a strong, brandy-infused beef broth. Most versions of this dish are pale imitations, but this is the real deal. And at $8, it should be.
The pear and Stilton salad with walnuts ($12) was a standout among salads, as was the classic Caesar ($9), which had citrus notes of lemon that lent a pleasing acidity to round out the strong flavors of marinated anchovy, Parmesan and garlic.
The lobster, shrimp and goat cheese purses ($16) — a riff on the iconic Quilted Giraffe beggar’s purse of the ’80s — was a playful plate that could be considered an extravagant French version of crab rangoon. The appetizer was fashioned out of buttery, crispy phyllo dough, then filled with large chunks of lobster and shrimp. The goat cheese and herbs complemented the lobster and shrimp. The beurre blanc sauce they were served on was on the blander side, but a basil-oil drizzle managed to tie the dish together with a nice, herbaceous flourish.
The JJ’s Pride, a 12-ounce filet rubbed with porcini mushrooms, was another classic dish. It is served with mashed potatoes, sautéed asparagus and an understated veal demi-glace. I ordered the steak medium rare, and it arrived at the table cooked to perfection. The huge spears of asparagus and potatoes were simple and well-cooked, although the asparagus spears were a bit woody.
The demi-glace added a satisfying richness that, combined with the fire-kissed sear on the steak, created a depth of flavor that enhanced the lean cut of beef. A classic steakhouse dish like this seems pleasantly old school, though at $55, the price tag is thoroughly modern.
The grilled rack of lamb, osso bucco, grilled pork chop and Kansas City strip are the type of meaty dishes easily devoured at a business dinner over a few bottles of fine wine. On one visit, I overheard the conversation of a group in town on a golf trip. The golfers seemed to be in a competition to select the most expensive wine.
Prior to the explosion, the wine offerings at JJ’s were widely considered the best in the city. Many of the rarest and most extravagant wines were stored offsite, but what was lost has been replenished. The golfing buddies’ current competition could have gone on, at least until the expense account ran out
I recommend inquiring about the specials, as they offer chef T.J. Stack, formerly of the Savoy, a chance to create dishes with an updated touch. On one visit, our very pleasant and helpful server suggested the red snapper special, which was grilled and served alongside mashed potatoes with marinated crab folded in and accompanied by a saffron cream sauce.
The snapper showed a light touch, with the smoky char marks giving balance to the perfectly moist texture of the fish. The crab added a sly salinity to the mashed potato, with the bright yellow saffron cream sauce bathing the dish in a sheath of luxury.
The dish was an unexpected highlight, and each diner at the table took turns sampling just a bit more of that sauce flecked with strands of saffron. The server’s description was as appetizing as it was spot on and was a perfect example of the very professional service you’re likely to find at JJ’s.
Whether you were a regular or you are seeking out classic flavor profiles easily complemented by fine wines, the resurrected restaurant has an elegant ambiance and taste that feel timeless.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef and freelance restaurant critic: tfoxfood@gmail, @theshortandlong
900 W. 48th Place
Food: ☆☆☆ The menu features an array of steaks, pastas and other offerings with a European flair that feels slightly old-fashioned, but in a comforting way. The steaks and seafood in particular showcase strong execution in cooking with fairly subtle seasoning, perfect for pairing with the restaurant’s exemplary wine list.
Service: ☆☆☆ JJ’s has always been known for outstanding service, and the newer incarnation continues that tradition, with a well-informed staff that is happy to make suggestions on food and drink pairings. The professional service is polished and polite, lending an air of sophistication to a meal at JJ’s.
Atmosphere: ☆☆ 1/2 The new incarnation of JJ’s has a more open and brighter feeling overall, with taller ceilings, light-colored walls and brightly colored paintings by local artist Michael Savage. The large patio is a perfect space for the more reasonable days and nights of summer.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday through Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$$$
Vegetarian options: Appetizers like wild mushroom toast and the daily pizza, plus a selection of salads and soups.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Free parking in garage inside the Polsinelli Building with validation.
Kids: No separate children’s menu, and the atmosphere is more adult-oriented.
Noise level: Low to medium. The bar can be louder when crowded, but overall the restaurant maintains a relaxed vibe.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
Paco Shrimp, $15
Ahi tuna, (appetizer) $17, (entree) $42
Lobster, shrimp and goat cheese purses, $16
Pizza of the day, priced daily
JJ’s Pride 12 ounce filet, $55
Rack of lamb, $46
What to drink
If you like wine while you dine, there are few places better than JJ’s. From affordable bottles to the more expensive, extravagant labels, JJ’s offers a wealth of choices to fit your tastes and price point. The handsomely appointed bar area also serves a nice selection of cocktails, beers and spirits. Happy hour runs from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and features deals on well drinks, wine and beers. The bar also stays open later on weekends for late night imbibing inside or on the patio.