Phoenix Rising

JJ's Restaurant reopens nearly two years after the deadly explosion



Jerry Wang

   When you step into the new JJ’s Restaurant, it’s clear that they’re starting fresh, but not without more than a few reminders of the past. Down the street, the singed archway of the old building still stands, a ghost of the establishment that blew up in February 2013 due to a natural gas leak.

   Co-owner David Frantze says the journey from then to now has been “a long 20 months.” Although he and his brother Jimmy considered rebuilding in the same spot, renting space in the Polsinelli building across the street proved more economically viable.

   At their soft opening for friends and family, Frantze says one person walked up to the bar, got a glass of wine, looked around and said, “Well, now I’m home.”  

   There was the usual flurry of activity to get things ready, and the restaurant barely obtained a new liquor license in time to serve the first customers selections from JJ’s famously long wine list.

   “There were a lot of irreplaceable bottles that were lost (in the fire), but we worked pretty hard to at least get a good start rebuilding our list,” Frantze says.

   On its first Friday night back in business, I visited with a friend. The new bar was packed with young professionals straight from the office, while the dining room was filled primarily with couples and double dates, dining against the backdrop of tall windows and vibrant paintings by local artist Michael Savage. The roar of activity from the boisterous bar in the dining room was hard to miss, but it was still possible to have a good conversation.

A painted mural of the former jj's location hangs over the bar.

 

     Above the bar, a long canvas depicts the old JJ’s as a poignant reminder of the restaurant’s history. Additionally, messages from JJ’s are frosted on the glass mirrors in the dressing room: “Smile, because of you, we’re open again,” and “You’re looking at the reason we’re back.”

     Large wine racks adorn the dining rooms, highlighted by spotlights that seem to beckon patrons to have a glass. My dining companion and I sampled a Schloss Schonborn Riesling Kabinett ’07 ($8) and an Albert Seltz Gewurztraminer ’12 ($9). Most of the offerings on the wine list are by the bottle (starting at about $32) and range from all over the globe, though there is one page of wines by the glass.

   I found the Riesling to be light and sweet, leaving just a little tingle on the tongue. The Gewurztraminer was heavier and drier, though not a dry wine generally. It may still be taboo to order white wine with heavier beef dishes, but I believe in ordering what you like, even if it goes against wine-pairing convention.

wild mushroom toast

 

   We stared with a round of appetizers. The wild mushroom toast ($13) included two crispy crostini topped with a satisfying mound of locally-foraged oyster and cremini mushrooms. A melting pat of butter on top highlighted the rich flavor.

    The pizza ($12), which was large for an appetizer with a 6-inch thin crust, was topped with beef spareribs, caramelized onions and fresh arugula. The beef and onions seemed to get a little lost in the deep tomato flavor of the sauce, but the arugula cut through with its sharpness. Our very attentive waiter, Kevin, served the dishes in the middle of the table so we could easily share.

   Kevin was also a waiter at the old JJ’s and had since found a gig at Prairie Village’s Story. When he heard JJ’s was returning, he arranged his shifts at Story so that he could work in both places. He says he’s thrilled to be back with his old colleagues.

   We moved onto salads with the pear and Stilton ($12) and the arugula ($9). The former featured mixed greens covered in a very sweet dressing, topped by warm cooked pear slices. Unsalted walnuts and crumbles of cheese balance the dish, though it is on the sweet side. The arugula salad has a more peppery taste, tamed by a lemony dressing and shavings on parmesano reggiano cheese.

   Our soup came before we were ready, but upon request, Kevin managed to slow down the rest of our food, so we wouldn’t feel rushed.

   My dining companion sampled the onion soup gratinée ($7), and although the cheese didn’t bubble over the sides the way she likes, she was happy with the strong beef broth and the amount of cheese. My clam chowder ($5), the soup de jour, was thick, creamy and smoky, studded with clams throughout.

     The menu offered a wide range of options for entrees, from steak to osso bucco and ahi tuna. I chose the petit filet ($39), a thick eight-ounce piece of beef with a flavorful crust on top that came with a rich veal demi-glace. The filet was plated with mashed potatoes infused with a subtle hint of garlic, thyme and rosemary, as well as thick spears of asparagus.

   The medallions au poivre ($33) came with a robust peppercorn cream sauce. Both beef dishes arrived one step rarer than we’d ordered. My friend didn’t mind, but I sent mine back for a little more time.

ronnie d's new york style cheesecake at jj's

 

   Throughout the meal, Kevin was great about offering to box up our leftovers. However, I never need a leftover box for dessert. We capped off the meal with a dense, moist rum cake ($8) and a chocolate cake ($8). The rum cake had a crunchy exterior, though it could have used another thimble-full of rum. The chocolate cake was delectably fudgy with thick layers of bittersweet icing and was topped off with a raspberry sauce.

   Overall, JJ’s re-opening is just that — bittersweet. Everyone was happily partaking in a fun and festive evening that Friday as fresh memories are built at the new JJ’s.

   But while the original JJ’s may have been out of sight, it will most certainly never be out of mind.   

 

   JJ’s Restaurant and Wine Bar is located in the Polsinelli Building at 900 West 48th Place, Kansas City, Mo. (816) 561-7136. Serves lunch and dinner.