Somehow we figured that the Dogtown space made popular by R.L. Steamer's wasn't going to stay vacant for very long. In addition to the basic good karma left from Steamer's, there's plenty of potential day biz from the nearby Forest Park Hospital (still thought of as "Deaconess" by most people) and from the coming online of the new Highlands office complex (still thought of as "the Arena site" by most people).
So along came a guy named Jack Weir, formerly the owner of a sports bar called Jack's on Broadway, down around 4400 south, and he saw all this stuff, and, because he already had a habit of naming places after himself, called it J.W.'s Off the Park, a bit of a double meaning because the site is two blocks from Forest Park and a half-block from West Park Avenue.
My impression from a couple of visits is that, although the space certainly retains all the charm of the neighborhood-storefront identity of its former occupant, the new restaurant hasn't yet settled on an identity on the food side. On the one hand, it has value pricing on its overall lunch menu and on a lunch-and-dinner pasta selection that should be enough to easily pack its eight-table dining room. On the other hand, nightly specials in the $15-$20 range are introducing Clayton pricing into Dogtown, and I'm thinking that, despite good quality from the ones we sampled, these prices are several bucks higher than most folks are going to expect.
If I were going to sum up the interior of the new restaurant in a single word, that word would be "orange." With walls this color, the place feels vibrant and perky, and despite the fact that the small group of tables is clustered fairly closely, it feels more cozy than cramped. Original artwork, courtesy of Art St. Louis, lines the walls, and wines by the glass are chalked in on a narrow board hung near the ceiling.
Speaking of chalkboards, the specials were presented on the one in the bar area, just before the entrance to the dining room, and they were repeated (albeit without prices on at least one visit) on an insert on the back of the menu. They're kept to a manageable list of four with regular rotation, served with basic but large side portions.
The appetizer choices consist of about half multicultural comfort food (spinach-artichoke dip, cheese garlic bread, toasted ravioli, a quesadilla) and half a little more adventurous, plus a Florentine pizza with the choice of chicken or shrimp that probably doubled as a full-meal choice. We stuck with the slightly more daring stuff and tried the Maryland-style crab cakes, risotto balls and calamari. Our favorite of these was the risotto balls, which probably would sound nicer if called arancini, or "little oranges," even though the size at J.W.'s was closer to that of regular oranges. A deep-fried mixture of arborio rice and a moderately spiced sausage and cheese, the risotto balls -- whose interiors were incredibly airy -- were served with a full-bodied marinara sauce as a dip. The calamari was coarsely battered and in large portion (although with a bit too many leg sections for my taste), fried and served with the same marinara, and the crab cakes -- three close-to-hamburger-sized rounds -- were crisp outside and almost creamy inside, with enough crab to make it the dominant flavor and a nice complement of mild horseradish cream sauce.
Among the entrées, shrimp Mediterranean was an aromatically garlicked selection of seven medium-large shrimp served over angel-hair pasta, and the raspberry chicken was a gently pounded 8-ounce breast served with a rich but not cloying raspberry sauce with a light-syrup consistency. "Lemony" seafood was a large piece of cod stuffed with a lightly breaded shrimp-and-crab mixture, and two lightly breaded tilapia filets were served with a potently tangy brown sauce. On one visit, the sides were new potatoes and broccoli; on the other, we got a layered, thinly sliced potato gratinée with three to four stalks of the broccoli (hot but so lightly steamed that they retained an almost evergreen color), in a portion size that reminded me of someplace like Morton's of Chicago.
Both desserts we tried came in on the rich side -- a peanut-butter "silk" pie featuring a brownielike layer adjacent to a creamy, sweet peanut butter, piled high with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup; and a chocolate-fudge-and-raspberry layer cake, rich in the chocolate part and light but definitely raspberry in the center.
The wine list is short, with only a few whites and eight reds and almost an equal number by the glass, generally in the $3-$6 range. With only eight tables, it wasn't surprising that the hostess was doubling as waitress on our weeknight visit; on the weekend, a second server appeared. In either case, the pace of the meal could best be described as casual, but it was apparent, as with the served-hot and well-prepared sides, that everything was being cooked to order in a fairly small kitchen.
Early last month, Weir also introduced an every-Thursday barbecue for lunch, featuring a choice of a half-slab of baby-back ribs, a 12-ounce pork steak or a half-chicken, each with two sides.
I'm thinking that J.W.'s needs to focus more on one direction or the other. If it's serious about pushing close to the $20-entrée level, it needs to get a little more elaborate and expand the number of entrée choices. If it wants to take a value niche, it needs to simplify a little and drop prices. We saw evidence of success at either approach, but I'm just not sure a neighborhood restaurant is going to be able to do both for the long term.