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Chain Reaction 

Pleasant surprises abound at Nashville-based J. Alexander's.

J. Alexander's Asian Ahi Tuna, with a side dish of orzo and wild rice. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • J. Alexander's Asian Ahi Tuna, with a side dish of orzo and wild rice.

National chain eateries get short shrift in this space -- intentionally so. After all, we don't want to be drawn into an argument over whether Ronald McDonald can beat up on the Burger King. Besides, we can't imagine that there is anyone who isn't already thoroughly familiar with the chains' homogenized offerings: If you've seen one Ground Chilibee's Steakhouse, you've seen them all, no matter where in the world you may wander.

So our initial reaction to the enthusiastic word-of-mouth about J. Alexander's was a yawn. "Isn't that a chain?" we'd drawl, one eyebrow arched in a show of mild contempt. But over the months, the buzz kept coming, until eventually we heard the Nashville-based conglomerate praised by everyone from a student chef to some of our own estimable dining companions. By then, our curiosity was piqued. And when a jaunt over to the corporate website uncovered some provocative claims to quality, a field trip was clearly in order.

Our opinion, post-research? J. Alexander's is remarkably good.

The Lyndhurst restaurant opened in 1996 and is one of 22 J. Alexander's locations around the country. (Ohio has four other outposts, one each in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.) The first clue that you haven't stepped into some cozy neighborhood getaway is the restaurant's sheer size: At about 180 seats, the pub and dining room make a far from intimate retreat. In fact, the high noise level -- a jumble of hundreds of routine conversations punctuated by screaming kiddies, clanging pots and pans from the large open kitchen, and the occasional dropped plate -- practically drowned out the Saturday night soundtrack of vintage blues and jazz, and nearly put us in mind of lunchtime in the high school cafeteria.

On the other hand, the large number of seats also seems to keep the wait for a table down to a bearable minimum. (Like its brethren, the restaurant doesn't accept reservations.) We showed up at seven on a busy weekend evening, were told there was a 10- to 20-minute wait, and were happily ensconced in a roomy booth within five minutes of walking in the door.

And despite the noise, the corporate gurus have done a commendable job of crafting the large space into an attractive, upscale environment, free of balloons, logo-emblazoned T-shirts, or sports memorabilia of any genre. Instead, the generous use of wood, stone, and brick gives the dining room and pub the feel of a contemporary lodge; a row of flaming gas lights on the arched half-wall between the two areas helps kindle the sense of sophisticated rusticity. The general illumination is both atmospheric and functional: Ambient lighting spreads a warm, coppery glow throughout the space, while little spotlights over each table make it possible to read the menu and appreciate one's food. The split-level room design, with a circular floor plan, wide aisles, and mainly high-backed booths, keeps the space from feeling crowded. Gleaming wooden tabletops, with white cloth napkins and glimmering votive candles, look crisp and inviting. And the black-garbed servers, while not always as attentive as we would have liked, were uniformly welcoming, friendly, and upbeat.

The contemporary American menu (a nicely organized single-page listing, rather than one of the sticky, photo-illustrated, plastic-laminated tomes that many of J. Alexander's lower-rung competitors seem to favor) has few outright surprises. You've got your soups and salads, burgers and clubs, and entrées that run heavily to chicken and beef. A primarily West Coast wine list is compact but well chosen, with producers like Merryvale, Far Niente, and Rodney Strong represented. By-the-bottle prices are mostly in the $20 to $40 range, and seven-ounce pours run mostly from $6 to $10 a glass. It's hard to accurately compare the restaurant's prices against retail costs, since the wine list failed to include vintage dates; however, we didn't spot any obvious bargains. The pub also provides all the usual mixed drinks, as well as a few "specialty" cocktails; a generously sized Shaker Heights Martini -- Bombay Sapphire or Ketel Vodka with vermouth and olives -- was a little on the weak side, not quite cold enough, and priced at $8.

But while the wine and spirits here might put a dent in the dining budget, the food -- fresh, well-seasoned, and served in almost ridiculously large portions -- is a great value, with nothing, save two steaks, breaching the $20 barrier. Thick sandwiches ($6 to $11) come with a riot of good, if frozen, french fries; entrée prices include salads and/or inventive side dishes. There is, however, an additional charge for bread. Still, the kitchen's dainty, warm croissants, drizzled with a sweet-and-salty honey butter, are definitely worth an occasional splurge.

Ingredients were almost uniformly top-shelf and thoughtfully handled. For instance, the enormous salads (both the Alex, with bacon bits, shredded mild cheddar, croutons, and neatly cubed cucumber and tomato; and the Caesar, with croutons and shaved Reggiano Parmigiano) were crisp, tossed in just the right amount of homemade dressing, and brought forth in well-chilled bowls. And accompaniments like delectable MBC (Maytag Blue Cheese) Cole Slaw and zesty orzo-and-wild-rice salad, colorfully flecked with raisins, corn, and yellow pepper, were delicious and unusual, and provided exciting counterpoint, in both flavor and texture, to the main events.

A giant slab of aged prime rib (a house specialty) was probably the best you'll find in Greater Cleveland, with enormous flavor, a melt-in-your-mouth texture, and just enough marbling to keep it lusciously moist; it was plated beside a mountain of dense, buttery "smashed" potatoes that were rich and satisfying, if just a tad too salty. Ten large "Cilantro Shrimp" -- black tiger shrimp, treated to a tongue-tingling rub of Cajun spices and hickory-grilled to succulent perfection -- were addictive, although the cilantro was understated in the extreme (even a confirmed cilantrophobe was hard-pressed to distinguish the herb's distinctive flavor); the shrimp rested on a bed of buttery, firm-grained rice, dappled with bits of red pepper and scallion greens. Grilled salmon was gently cooked until barely firm; a massive grilled chicken breast, in a light herb demi-glace with a hint of lime, was fork-tender and juicy.

In consideration of the huge portion sizes, appetizers are completely unnecessary. That said, it would have been a shame to miss J. Alexander's notably good, deep-fried calamari: a golden tangle of thickly cut, impeccably tender rings and tentacles in a firm, crisp, well-seasoned breading, topped with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and shaved Parmesan, and served with a half-lemon and a portion of mild, chunky marinara.

In a similar fashion, it took a superior game plan to do justice to our entrées and still have room for dessert, but the warm, dark carrot cake, draped with a not-too-sweet cream cheese icing, made the effort seem worthwhile. As an alternative, the Very Best Chocolate Cake -- a sturdy wedge of bundt cake, so moist it glistened beneath the lights, sided with a big scoop of vanilla Häagen-Dazs and festooned with ribbons of good-quality hot fudge -- was wonderfully rich and delightful. And, of course, it should go without saying that both these desserts were large enough for sharing.

As is the case with most non-owner-operated businesses, there is a certain impersonality to chain restaurants, and here J. Alexander's is no exception. There was no proud executive chef making the rounds of the dining room, no solicitous owner checking on customer satisfaction. Our favorite server today will probably be leaving for college tomorrow. And it seems pretty unlikely that the bartender will ever ask us if we want "the usual," as we slip onto our customary barstool. But for all that, J. Alexander's still gets the nod for delivering intelligently conceived, consistently well-prepared, and good-tasting meals, at a reasonable price in an atmosphere both handsome and restrained. It's no Baricelli Inn, of course. But for our money, it's the strongest link in the chains.

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