A reader sent an e-mail to tell me about JJ's Everyday Cafe. He wasn't the only one sharing the news about this charming cafe in Timonium. There were people waiting near the door of the restaurant when we arrived at 6 p.m. on a recent weeknight, and more waiting to take our table when we left two hours later. The word, obviously, is out.
From the outside, JJ's looks like a luncheonette. Inside, though, the dining room conveys a feeling of warmth, with its buttery-cream walls and comfortable country French dining chairs.
The staff is welcoming and friendly, but service can be slow at times. It's almost as if JJ's can't quite keep up with its own success.
There are five Js behind the JJ's name: chef Jesse Jacobs IV, his dad, Jesse Jacobs III, and mom, Pat Jacobs. The trio opened the restaurant about six months ago with a menu that encompasses simple sandwiches and burgers, innovative combinations (tamari-ginger-lime sauce with whole-wheat pasta), and time-honored favorites (fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Marsala), sometimes with a twist.
The mussels marinara are a good example. These plump, fresh bivalves were plucked from their shells in the kitchen and nestled in a casserole with a simple chunky tomato sauce. It was a neat presentation, unusual and easy to eat because there were no shells to wrestle with.
Other seafood appetizers were just as wonderful. The shrimp bisque was thick and creamy, with pure shrimp flavor and tiny bits of ground shrimp. And the marinated grilled shrimp were gorgeous -- six tender, jumbo shrimp drizzled with an orange-pink puree of roasted red pepper and garlic. Finishing our appetizers and spreading warm rolls with honey butter, we were blissfully content.
Our entrees didn't disappoint, either. Wee tried a comforting pasta dish: penne mixed with sauteed broccoli florets, slivers of sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts in a light cream sauce with Parmesan cheese. Often, rich white sauces can weigh down noodles, making them almost too heavy to eat. This sauce was perfect.
Another sauce that we loved was the ground walnut butter spread on top of baked trout. It gave a nutty contrast to the fish. Roasted new potatoes and grilled ribbons of squash with a splash of that wonderful red pepper sauce we tried earlier rounded out our plate.
A few dishes were not as successful. A small Caesar salad was drenched in dressing, and the addition of cold bacon pieces changed the flavor of this classic, not for the better.
The description of a chicken dish we tried listed so many ingredients, it looked like a paragraph on the page. It tasted fat, too. There were far too many flavors pulling in different directions instead of working together. Strips of marinated chicken were combined with sauteed spinach and mushrooms, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes over a wild-rice blend. The whole thing was topped with crumbled feta. It didn't help that the dish looked like an unattractive dark mound.
But overall, JJ's Everyday Cafe delivers impressive food at equally impressive prices. Adding to the bargain, there are unlimited refills on sodas, iced tea and coffee, and you can bring your own beer or wine. If you want something sweet, there are cakes made by Ms. Desserts.
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JJ's Everyday Cafe
2141 York Road, Timonium
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.25-$6.95; entrees, $3.95-$15.95. (No liquor license)
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *