2215 Hamilton Place Blvd.
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37421
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
11 a.m.-11 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
J. Alexander’s is a large chain restaurant, but it is not a typical chain. The menu is a mix of contemporary American dishes served with some refinement and mixed with influences from other countries, representative of the American melting pot of flavors from around the world. With prices ranging from the lower $10s to the upper $20s for entrées, the place draws a varied clientele. But to have widespread success in a chain restaurant in this price range, the food and experience must be off the (proverbial) chain.
Upon arrival, I was seated immediately, though I have, on previous occasions, had to wait for a while. The contemporary atmosphere includes low lighting and warm wood tones with smooth jazz playing in the background, providing a relaxing, intimate vibe.
After going through a not-so-great experience with service on my previous review, it was refreshing to have a server fully on top of her game this time. She was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable about the menu, and drinks never dropped below halfway before they were refilled-it was a “glass-is-half-full” kind of experience. This server exemplified what a top-tier professional server should be, and the whole operation seemed to run like a well-oiled machine throughout the whole evening-a machine of high-quality, refined oils-and all the food came out surprisingly quick, so without further ado, let’s get to the dishes.
For an appetizer, I chose the fire-grilled artichoke. Only a part of artichokes is edible, with the prized part being the soft heart-which can be so dreamy-but the heavily fibrous outer leaves of an artichoke will choke you, though artfully, so don’t try to eat them, even if you need more fiber in your diet. This dish included the hard leaves, to be used as a tool to pull away the soft lower parts and, melodramatically, pieces of the heart. You then gently rake away the flesh with your teeth.
This flame-grilled, steaming-hot, lusty vegetable had just enough char on the outer leaves to strengthen the smoky essence to the edible parts. The heart was pulsing with an extremely intense flavor of melted herb butter with a heavy garlic, salt and pepper punch. A rémoulade sauce was served on the side to cool things down, and dipping pieces into it provided a velvety texture to the soft, heavily seasoned, morsels of artichoke lower leaf and be-stilled heart.
Next, I tried a side salad, which normally would sound really standard and boring, but not at J. Alexander’s. The portions at this restaurant are huge, and this “side” salad really put me in store for what I was in for, as it was the size of a regular dinner salad, with more of a vertical climb. This grand heap of greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, grated carrots and cheese was topped off with bacon crumbles and croutons. The croutons had a nice consistency of crunchiness and buttery moistness, and the tangy buttermilk ranch provided a rich, creamy texture for the mixture. It was a straightforward salad done in a dramatic way, and because of the sheer size, if one were to eat the whole thing, to-go boxes would be in short order soon after starting the main course.
My main course included another mountain of veggies in the form of the “Thai kai salad.” This was an exquisite elevation of mixed greens, grated carrots, thick ribbons of chicken and crispy wontons dressed in a cilantro vinaigrette-the trickster herb who seems to be stalking me now in menu options (I meant no disrespect, Mr. Cilantro)! This dressing was a masterful mix of my buddy cilantro with lime, honey and ginger, and it was sweet and refreshing with the fresh, crispy components of the salad. A creamy Thai peanut sauce cascaded down the slopes, with crushed peanuts sprinkled on the peak and along the craggy cliffs. The peanuts and wontons provided a crunchy consistency to the salad, while the peanut sauce added an extra sweet and nutty flavor.
The next entrée was their signature, aged prime rib. The method of aging beef for an extended amount of time-usually approximately 20 to 30 days-is precise; it has to be high-grade beef aged in a carefully controlled, refrigerated setting, and the outer portion must be trimmed, so part of the bulk is lost. It is an expensive process for those reasons, and one that carries high risk, so typically only finer restaurants-and people who really know what they are doing-will execute it. The end result is a more flavorful and tender cut of beef, as the aging process breaks down connective tissues to tenderize the meat.
I’m unsure of the amount of time J. Alexander’s ages their prime rib, but they’ve got it down to a science. This cut of beef was phenomenal, and it was so tender someone without teeth could possibly chew it. I still have all my teeth, or else I could have removed dentures to test this theory-and I’m sure the well-dressed patrons at neighboring tables would have enjoyed seeing that spectacle while eating their dinners. I did, however, try to cut it with my fork, and, with minimal effort, a hearty hunk flaked right off. Using the more traditional knife method, it cut like butter. The meat was seasoned well, and though the texture was already juicy, I dipped it into the rich au jus. The beef seemed to melt between my teeth with each bite, resulting in a choir of angel moo-cows in my head.
The next dish I tried, the pork tenderloin, was also highly tender, as the name suggests. The cured loin was laid out in an attractive spread and smothered in their Thai “bang bang” chile sauce. Even though it was already cut into bite-sized chunks, I tried the fork-cutting test again just because I was having fun cutting things with my fork, and it went right through with barely any pressure (I’m easily amused). These luscious pork cuts were perfectly cooked, and though the cured meat was sweet on its own, the “bang bang” sauce gave it more of a slightly sweet-and-spicy swift kick to the jaw, followed with the second “bang” of an aftertaste stronger than the first.
Both the prime rib and tenderloin were served with a side of their garlic smashed potatoes. I appreciated the extremely thick consistency of the potatoes; they were the kind you can stab with a fork-doing some further fork-play-while the rest of the mound remains stationary without pieces crumbling or running off. The strong presence of garlic and butter gave them a strong flavor. Another tasty (and fun!) thing to do was dip them in the au jus and let them soak up the rich beefiness for a few seconds or use them to mop up some of the “bang bang” sauce, as both sauces added a nice mixture of flavors to the potatoes’ garlic goodness. Both meat dishes would be any red-blooded-American-meat-and-potatoes-kind-of-person’s fantasy.
For dessert, I went for the “very best chocolate cake,” which is a bold statement that was backed up by a bold, sweet, rich chocolate flavor. This cake-which could be the “very best” I’ve tried, and I’m not typically a fan of cake-was served with a side of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge, for a nice play of hot, cold, chocolate and vanilla flavors. The molten, gooey cake not only melted in my mouth, but it was also so moist that it seemed to melt away from each slice of my spoon. My forks were gone after the server dutifully tidied up the table following the meal, or I could have had more fork-fun for good measure-or even better, a spork would’ve been superb.
I am giving J. Alexander’s 4 stars for extremely flavorful dishes, a relaxing atmosphere and service that couldn’t have possibly been better. The silverware was spotlessly clean, with forks of the highest quality.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.