J. Paul's has embraced its location.
The Harborplace restaurant, which originally opened in 1997, reopened last June after an eight-month renovation. With six months under its belt, the revamped restaurant's food is mostly on point, but the staff still seems to be working out a few kinks.
The space is smaller than it was before, but open, airy and noticeably nautical. With ropes here and shiny metal ship fixtures there, the room is welcoming, if a bit too bright. Right now, the restaurant's white walls and floors seem stark, but in the summer months, when floor-to-ceiling windows facing the water open out to the harbor, those touches will likely feel fresh.
The menu, updated a bit since last year, feels appropriately casual, with seafood to fit the mood but enough of a mix to cater to tourists with diverse appetites.
Instead of a basket of bread, meals at J. Paul's start with complimentary soft pretzels served with bright yellow mustard. The pretzels themselves were standard — the sort of thing you'd pull from the freezer at home — but their novelty made up for what they lacked in quality.
The staff, smartly clad in boat-friendly striped shirts and khakis, looked great. Unfortunately, during our visit, our waiter was not quite on his game.
He started out strong, full of friendly enthusiasm as we ordered our first round of drinks — a full-bodied J. Paul's Amber ($6.50) and a crisp Sparkling Sauce cocktail ($9), a combination of apple, ginger and champagne.
The drinks took a little too long to arrive, but our waiter explained the delay with a smile, saying the beer tap had to be changed. Easy enough. But when he used the same excuse later in the meal to account for an even longer delay, we weren't as charmed.
The food, fortunately, was better than the service.
J. Paul's bills itself as a raw bar — its window signage boasts "fresh oysters daily." A half-dozen bluepoints ($16) were plump, ice-cold and briny, though not expertly shucked (the oysters weren't completely detached from their shells).
With the oysters, J. Paul's served two condiments: a DIY cocktail sauce — ketchup topped with a dollop of horseradish — and a mild take on mignonette, the traditional French sauce of red wine vinegar, shallots and black pepper.
J. Paul's version lacked the bracing acidity of classic mignonette, but even without, it was a welcome addition to the oyster platter.
A burger ($13 plus $1 per topping) topped with cheddar cheese and "tobacco onions" showed off J. Paul's skill with American standards. Though cooked a little unevenly, the burger was juicy, tucked inside a fresh brioche bun, shiny and sweet.
The tobacco onions turned out to be thinly sliced white onions, soaked in buttermilk, dusted in a flour-based coating, and flash-fried. Nothing "tobacco" about them, but their light, salty crunch was a good addition to the burger.
Served in a silver cup alongside the burger, J. Paul's fries were top-notch — crunchy outside, airy inside and salted just the right amount.
The JP Combo ($24), a likable combination of ribs and crab cake, arrived on a large slate tile.
Though some bites of the crab cake were a touch dry, we enjoyed its delicate flavor, especially in contrast to the ribs, which packed a punch.
The ribs were tender, though not quite warm enough. But they were slathered in barbecue sauce that made us forget about temperature. Nicely balanced between sweet, spicy and acidic, the thick red sauce was fantastic.
The combo was rounded out with a generous helping of those crispy fries and a tangy apple slaw adding welcome freshness to the plate.
During our visit, J. Paul's offered two dessert selections. We opted for a "no-bake" chocolate cake ($8), a generous triangle of dense chocolate, served with chocolate and raspberry sauces.
The cake was fudgy, with rich chocolate flavor, but the texture was slightly grainy. Still, the sauces on the side complemented the cake and overall, it was a tasty end to dinner.
Throughout the meal, our waiter kept up a cheerful attitude, but from time to time he disappeared, leaving us wondering where our food and drinks were. He maintained his enthusiasm even after we paid the bill, sending us off with a hearty handshake and a smile.
Our meals were satisfying, but following the lags in service, the handshake felt out of place.
But as we headed back out to the harbor, we reasoned that at least tourists popping into J. Paul's for a few oysters or a meal will leave with the impression that Baltimore's a friendly town.
Back story: J. Paul's reopened its Harborplace location last June after an eight-month renovation. With a family-friendly cafe vibe, an extensive raw bar and capable casual favorites on the menu, the restaurant is a good fit for its touristy location.
Parking: Street parking and multiple garages
Signature dish: The JP Combo is a casual surf-n-turf platter. A slab of ribs smothered in impressively balanced sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce sits alongside a meaty crab cake. Crunchy french fries and tangy apple slaw round out the tasty — and filling — plate.
Where: Harborplace, 301 Light St.
Contact: 410-659-1889; http://www.j-pauls.com
Open: Winter hours, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; summer hours, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: All major
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun