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Life Is Juicy at J Café

Donna Chriszt's new restaurant is all grown up.

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The Lamb Medley, one of Chriszt's many hits. - WALTER  NOVAK

Donna Chriszt, one of Cleveland's outstanding young chefs and culinary artists, has really hit her stride in her new East Side restaurant, the tasteful and tasty J Café.

Chriszt opened her new kitchen in Woodmere's Eton Collection in late June with partner Ed Dunlop. After several weeks of commuting between J Café and her original West Side restaurant, Jeso, she decided to commit herself to the new location full-time. She says the move, and the new partnership, will give her the resources she needs to continue to grow as a chef and to expand her customer base. (Chriszt's former partner, Richard Marthaller, says Jeso will reopen without her, as soon as he secures a replacement.)

Based on two recent visits to J Café, the change of venues has been all for the good. While both the food and the decor are still pure Chriszt, with her keen sense of visual artistry and fondness for Asian and Southwestern flavor notes, there is a bit more style and elegance to the new location.

The spare, contemporary space is flooded with natural light from the wall-length windows and the enormous skylight above the gently retro-looking lounge. Although it contains lots of sharp lines from numerous half-walls and cutaways, the area's color scheme of muted chartreuse helps it remain serene and soothing, and serves as a peaceful backdrop to a few striking pieces of modern art. After dark, votive candles in frosted chartreuse holders flicker on the white-linen-dressed tables, and the ambient lighting in the two main dining rooms, although subdued, is bright enough to let diners enjoy the beauty as well as the flavor of Chriszt's food. (J Café has a place for alfresco diners, too, on a long, narrow, awning-covered patio that runs the length of the restaurant.)

This grown-up decor seems to reflect a new maturity and depth in Chriszt's cooking, which, even two years ago, was winning accolades from no less a source than the James Beard Foundation. Flavors are bold, use of sauces is both artistic and taste-enhancing, and dishes contain frequent little unexpected "extras" that boost the pleasure quotient.

Take, for example, the cranberry-shallot butter that accompanied the slices of moist, cake-like herbed focaccia and chewy baguette in our breadbasket. From its dainty pink color to its taste-bud-rousing sweet, sour, and salty flavor parade, the unusual butter blend made a delightful and attention-grabbing promise that this dinner was going to be special.

J Café is not a place to skip the appetizers in an ill-conceived attempt to save either calories or pennies. Splurge, because here is where Chriszt's distinct flavor lexicon is most deliciously accessible. The current menu's seven appetizer selections range from a sweet-and-zesty barbecued pork "sandwich" (a reminder of Chriszt's days at downtown Pig Heaven), architecturally stacked with grilled corn bread, tempura-like battered onion rings, and frizzles of green onion; to succulent grilled shrimp sate with juicy mango slaw; and a crisp, spicy pulled-chicken burrito with avocado, black beans, and sprouts. Futomaki — vegetarian sushi rolls — with a hot and spicy dipping sauce, and tender turkey-filled potstickers, served with wasabi, ginger, and a creamy peanut sauce, continue the global theme.

But good as they are, none of these could compare to our favorite: an assemblage of unusually creamy, slightly sour goat cheese packed around slender spears of blanched asparagus and wrapped in paper-thin slices of soft yet crunchy roasted red and yellow beets. The dish's assorted textures were a revelation, and its flavor was a symphony of tastes.

Our salad sorties have also been successful. Coarsely shredded iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, celery, carrots, and red onions, thoroughly tossed in a thick, assertively cheesy peppercorn-Parmesan dressing — the Crisphead Compote — was moist, crisp as advertised, and surprisingly light-textured for a salad that looked like a cole-slaw side dish for a giant. Alternatively, a salad made of a generous portion of delicate assorted wild greens was more subtle, dressed in a flavorful but not overpowering Asian-mushroom vinaigrette with strong overtones of ginger and sesame, and sprinkled with aromatic sliced "nuts," with a flavor like almonds, from the center of apricot pits.

While we enjoyed our appetizers, we studied J Café's wine list, a compact but comprehensive collection of mostly American wines, mostly from lesser-known boutique wineries. Delightful choices are available in all price ranges, and markups seem quite reasonable. However, because few of these wines are widely known, we worry that casual wine drinkers may not spot many names on the list that they will feel able to order with confidence. In the absence of a sommelier, servers and staff members need to be prepared to volunteer information on the offerings.

Ten entrées, plus several daily specials, visit familiar territory, though lovely presentation and attentive preparation keep them special.

We absolutely swooned over pan-seared halibut, so gently cooked that its white flesh shimmered in the candlelight. The impeccably prepared, mild-flavored fish came resting on a pillowy asparagus timbale, a soufflé-like blend of eggs and finely shredded asparagus, shallots, and carrots that had been baked until its outside was crisp and savory, but it remained crunchy, moist, and custard-like within.

Halibut and soufflé were then settled on a bed of crisp-crusted, perfectly grilled polenta, and the entire creation was floated upon a pool of light but creamy sweet-corn purée. The stack of ingredients, with their complementary layers of texture and taste, again made this a powerfully flavored and altogether memorable dish.

Almost as good was a classic herb-roasted chicken, with succulent meat hidden beneath a crisp, buttery, rosemary-scented skin. The golden-brown half-chicken came in a deep plate surrounded by perfectly done red-skinned potatoes, tender-crisp haricots verts, and well-seasoned pan juices. In places, those rich juices had caramelized on the chicken's skin, creating little patches of intensely flavored bliss. And the dish's heady, herbed perfume was nothing short of heavenly.

Tenderloin of Beef, medium-well as ordered, was still slightly pink and very flavorful beneath its deeply grilled and aromatic exterior. It was topped with a tumble of amber-colored caramelized onions and set upon a mound of rough-mashed potatoes; between the meat and the potatoes was hidden a cache of emerald-green broccoli-asparagus hybrid, a new vegetable on the market with a mild, sweet, but vaguely mustardy bite.

Voodoo Pork — slices of medium-rare, jerk-marinated pork tenderloin arranged around chunky mashed yucca root and accented with a thick, sweet, and fruity pineapple salsa — was another champ, with each bite creating a rich, round, and satisfying experience in the mouth. Pan-seared Day Boat Scallops were tender and deliciously prepared, although they were a little gritty, and their basmati rice accompaniment seemed dull in comparison to some of the richer and more unusual foodstuffs we had sampled with the other entrées.

Unlikely as it may seem, an amply filled bowl of al dente penne pasta, tossed in a creamy, basil-garlic-and-olive-oil pesto sauce and dotted with tender grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato, and a few cubes of fresh summer veggies, also suffered in comparison to its competition. While the dish was actually quite tasty, it simply wasn't as interesting or complex as the other entrées at the table.

We sweetened up considerably at the mention of dessert. A thick slab of warm Apple and Sun-Dried Cherry Tart, drizzled with a thick caramel sauce and surrounded with a tender, biscuit-like crust, was deliciously autumnal. Although the apples were a bit undercooked for our tastes, they were good-tasting fruit, and they got an extra jolt of flavor from the sweet-and-sour cherries and slightly salty caramel sauce.

Less successful was a goblet filled with colorful blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and red raspberries and drizzled with cr&eagrave;me Anglaise. On both occasions that we tried this wonderfully simple-sounding dessert, we were surprised by how sour and flavorless the berries were. A dusting of sugar or a sprinkle of liqueur would have gone a long way toward helping these beautiful sourpusses make nice. (Okay, that was us desperately shaking on the Sweet-N-Low during one visit.)

Although we are not big fans of chocolate, we are learning to appreciate the nuances of the ubiquitous Flourless Chocolate Cake. J Café's version is like an ultra-smooth, super-dense wedge of fudge, with a pure chocolate flavor and a less-than-overwhelming sweetness. Served on a puddle of thick mixed-berry sauce, which had been feathered with threads of cr&eagrave;me Anglaise, the cake was altogether yummy, although nearly twice as large as we cared to eat. (However, since chocolate lovers insist that there is no such thing as too much chocolate, this point is probably moot.)

At both visits, service was welcoming, considerate, and friendly, with manager Barrie Shulman making Saturday-night rounds of the tables to chat with guests, and Chriszt herself emerging briefly from the kitchen to visit with a large party of happy diners.

If this is what happens when she gets the opportunity to really spread her wings, here's hoping that Chriszt keeps flying high for years to come.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at ecicora@clevescene.com.

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