Fern bars have become synonymous with tiled floors, brass rails, dark wood and menus that stick determinedly close to the standard burger and salad theme. Thus J.B. Winberie arrives on the scene as a surprise, not so much for its setting -- which is familiar, albeit decidedly handsome -- but for its menu, which ventures into some pretty adventurous territory.
To be sure, there are sandwiches and salads by the score, but there are also fondues and cheese boards offered as appetizers, and stir-frys and low-calorie dishes served as entrees. And instead of getting stuck with a mediocre selection of house jug wines, there's a weekly selection of wines by the glass and a two page wine list, plus a drink menu that features no less than 63 cocktails and ice cream drinks.
It's about as fashionable and up-to-date a selection as you might want, served by some of the friendliest and most solicitous waiters and waitresses around, in a two-level pub setting that is a cut above the norm.
Service is crackerjack, but it's obvious that the management has drilled good salesmanship techniques into the staff. Just as we were about to ask for our check one evening, our waitress swooped down with a pastry tray laden with tempting desserts. Fortunately, we had previously sampled the offerings and refrained from taking her up on the invitation. Yet even staff members who aren't waiting on you are quick with a greeting, always eager to help, leading you to imagine that this has been your neighborhood hangout for years, though the restaurant is less than a month old.
For all of this, however, what sounds intriguing on the menu oftentimes falls flat on the plate. And it takes some hunting to track down a dish you would consider ordering again.
To its credit, the menu is set up to encourage snacking and the sharing of foods. A variety of pizzas, pastas and fondue selections are offered as both appetizers and main courses, a boon to light eaters or those not wishing to order a complete meal.
Among hors d'oeuvres offerings, the combination platter of potato skins, chicken wings, cheese fingers and deep-fried pita chips provides a chance to sample a number of the appetizers. The wings aren't nearly as hot as the menu might have us believe, but they're surprisingly meaty and juicy morsels with crisp seasoned crust. And the pita chips were rather good, too, despite an accompanying artichoke and mustard cream cheese dip that was as flavorless as it was smooth.
Best of all the starters is a pot of fondue, either cheddar and beer or emmenthal and gruyere. The cheddar and beer selection we sampled was pleasantly smooth and mildly piquant, accompanied with a generous basket of fresh, crusty french bread and crisp apple slices.
Main courses tend to be risky ventures: A shrimp stir-fry arrived as a rainbow of fresh, barely cooked vegetables and pink shrimp, yet it wanted for more flavor and the shrimp was slightly chewy. Similarly, the primavera pizza looked smashing -- a blanket of melted monterey jack cheese draped over a melange of vegetables -- and its crust was crisp and thin, but the whole was about as exciting as store-bought. Ditto an even blander sausage-topped pizza. Even the veal and shrimp linguine, described on the menu as "a spicy cajun style pasta" was flat, with but a whisper of pepperiness to bolster the bland creaminess.
If there are no real finds among the entrees, there are certainly respectably adequate meals to be had, including fresh fish specials, which have been well-prepared, and hamburgers, large and juicy, accompanied by a fistful of fresh cut french fries.
Under the "Look of Lean" listing are four entrees under 400 calories -- two pasta dishes, a veal selection and chicken marsala, which was a heavily pounded chicken breast sauced with sauteed fresh mushrooms and garnished with yellow squash, an orange and an apple half. It was no worse than what one might purchase from a frozen display case, but it was no better, either.
I'll save my snacking and drinking for J.B. Winberie -- and plan on having dinner elsewhere.