The chain capital of the world just keeps getting richer, doesn't it? In recent weeks, our privileged little hamlet has seen a string of chain restaurants, particularly of the swank-and-swagger variety, open their doors to diners with prosaic palates and bulging wallets. J. Alexander's, a Nashville-based chain, is one such restaurant, and along with the newly opened Ocean Prime (another upscale chain) anchors the Rialto, a 350,000-square-foot mixed-use development complex on the corner of Turkey Lake and Sand Lake roads. If you've dined at places like the Village Tavern, Houston's or Stonewood Grill, you'll be familiar with what J. Alexander's has to tender ' a consistent offering of quality fare dished up in comfortably modern environs. In fact, the décor is a notch above the others; not only does its minimalist, polished cherrywood interior fuse nicely with the hushed lighting, it also ties into the restaurant's credo of simplicity, that being a vow to serve 'straightforward American food.â?�
Sides feature prominently on their menu, and one can make a meal from small plates alone, as a group of friends and I did on one occasion. Glistening wedges of comforting iron-skillet cornbread ($4) will have you coming back for more. 'Not-your-ordinaryâ?� mac and cheese ($4), with gruyère and bacon, lives up to its name, as do the 'colossalâ?� buttermilk onion rings ($7) resembling deep-fried gaskets from an aircraft engine. Salads here are more than just an afterthought. I enjoyed Alex's salad ($9), a simple yet stimulating assemblage of field greens, grape tomatoes, cukes, cheese, bacon and croutons draped with an invigorating cilantro vinaigrette. Bursts of blue cheese in the Palm Beach salad ($10) were balanced out by a house-made basil vinaigrette, but if you're talking about 'straightforwardâ?� and 'American,â?� the old-fashioned cheeseburger ($10) with Tillamook cheddar best exemplifies the restaurant's motto. If you opt for the roti chicken dip ($12), don't expect any Indian flatbread. The 'rotiâ?� here refers to pulled rotisserie chicken stuffed in a baguette and served with a dunk-worthy chicken jus.
Mains place the focus on steak and seafood, and on this particular evening, the two specials proved irresistible. The peppery rub of the perfectly grilled Cajun grouper ($26) made it a little easier to digest the price tag, as did an attractive heaping of Israeli couscous (minuscule pasta orbs, not grains of semolina). Filet kebabs ($25) featured a fleshy foursome of melt-in-your-mouth morsels glazed in a Maui marinade of pineapple, garlic, brown sugar and soy. Jasmine rice and a variety of thick-cut veggies rounded out the meat-lover's feast.
The sugary finales won't astound you, but won't disappoint you either. The circle of hot fudge surrounding a scoop of vanilla ice cream was just eye candy compared to the enormous wedge of chocolate cake ($7), served warm with a molten chocolate center. A mascarpone cheese finish made mush of the crème brûlée's ($7) custardy filling, while carrot cake ($6) was a slice, rather than a slab, of life.
Service can't exactly be described as 'straightforwardâ?� when a cadre of white-shirted waiters serve, pick up, clean, refill and tend to your table. It's pretty clear that customer service is of the utmost importance here, though the wait staff's coordinated performance, while impressive, can be distracting at times.
J. Alexander's doesn't wholly segregate itself from the stigma associated with corporate eateries, but that doesn't warrant a negation of their efforts in the front and back of the house. What they do, they do well. Here in the city of chains, that's enough to set them apart from the rest.