Before J&G Steakhouse went under the knife in August, it was a three-star restaurant with a muted palette and a ceiling that seemed to go on forever, a destination as prized for fish as for meat. When it emerged from renovation about a month later, the ground-floor dining attraction in the W Hotel looked just as its new general manager hoped it would: “more playful and energetic.”
John Leinhardt’s words certainly apply to the enormous suspended lanterns and the shocking red vinyl seats that push into broad walnut tables. A wall in the rear is dominated by an abstract photograph of the Capitol dome that reminds you you’re not far from the real deal just up the road. Adding to the fizz in the redesign is a small bar with seven seats and a couple of tall communal tables, where light bites — a lobster roll, beef sliders — can be washed back with such fresh cocktails as a Manhattan made marvelous with tawny port and walnut bitters.
The time off has been good for the interior, which, like recent comers on the market sidesteps the traditional manly imprint. The menu, in contrast, reads like a throwback to the days when hotel restaurants played it safe as comfort zones for guests who didn’t want to be challenged at mealtime. Shrimp cocktail, anyone? Beef carpaccio? An appetizer of minced yellowfin tuna tartare layered between harsh preserved lemon and rich avocado is also overwhelmed by a thin cover of deep-fried quinoa.
Philippe Reininger, 53 and an acolyte of the acclaimed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, is a talented chef. But a diner doesn’t always taste his skills in J&G’s new (yet predictable) fall menu. With notable exceptions, the recent additions hover in the realm of ... pleasant.
Take the fritters that crack open to cores of truffled cheese. What’s not to like about something fried and hot and gooey? Picture a cross between mozzarella sticks and gougeres. On the lighter side is a salad of roasted squash and curly frisee with pinches of goat cheese; the mix gets a nice jolt from a pumpkinseed vinaigrette. And the kitchen has fun with clam chowder, a pond of hot cream adrift with crisp “waves” of garlic chips.
One of the dishes that used to draw me to this restaurant, even off-duty, was Reininger’s halibut set on a racy base of black beans and chilies and crowned with cool chopped celery. I know chefs can’t keep everyone’s favorites forever, but I’m surprised this stellar signature was dropped, especially given the fish entrees that have taken its place. Steamed rockfish under a carpet of shaved mushrooms is best for the intense mushroom dashi in its bowl. Pan-fried lobster with sauteed cabbage, on the other hand, is totally forgettable, its accents of ginger and mint vague.
For the most part, meat is what you want to slice at J&G. “Six peppercorn” New York steak tastes like truth in advertising, each bite a trumpet blast of heat; the bone-in rib-eye is 20 ounces of indulgence for $54. The (mostly prime) steaks show off good shopping, and any cut is better with a dab of the house-made condiments cleverly served in ramekins that look like hollowed beef bones. New to the lineup is a pork porterhouse, blushing and thick and dense; its assets include a citrusy barbecue glaze and bright green broccoli rabe.