Same Old Song 

Belle Meade piano-bar/eatery offers typical dishes, uneven execution

Belle Meade piano-bar/eatery offers typical dishes, uneven execution

PJ’s 106

106 Harding Place

354-9901

Tues.-Sat., from 5:30 p.m.

Nashville’s first major snowstorm of the winter a couple weeks ago didn’t seem to keep anyone home from PJ’s 106 on a Saturday night. By 7:30 p.m., nearly every table was taken in the dining room, and the bar area was beginning to fill up. Since opening in early fall 1999—and reopening about a month later after a fire—the Belle Meade restaurant has been doing a brisk business for dinner six nights a week.

It’s hard not to like a restaurant whose owner offers his services as a chauffeur to his customers. That night, my four dinner companions had taken a cab to PJ’s for dinner, but when they tried to get one to take them back to their Belmont neighborhood, every taxi company reported waits of one to two hours. George Pinger—the ”P“ to co-owner John Jonethis’ ”J“—eventually piled all four diners in his car and drove them home himself. What a guy.

Still, Pinger is not a one-man band, and while Jonethis certainly keeps up his end of the partnership from the piano where he entertains nightly, the remaining supporting players in this venture are not pulling their weight.

The restaurant is divided into two rooms: To the left of the entrance is a candlelit dining room swathed in warm shades of taupe and brown; to the right is another room with a crescent-shaped, glass-blocked bar, several banquette tables, Jonethis’ piano, and a dance floor. Our table unpleasantly straddled both rooms; each time the front door opened, a slight chill made its way to the table, which helped to dissipate the cigarette smoke wafting our way from the bar. Because of the table’s position, I was seated with my back to the room. If seated at this table again, I would insist on, and be willing to wait for, a different place to sit.

Our server brought a round of drinks, while the hostess brought a pair of reading glasses, since between the dim lighting and the small print, three members of our party of five couldn’t read the menu. Once we were able to focus, we found a selection of six appetizers, two salads, seven entrees, and a slate of fish to be ordered blackened, grilled, or sautéed. A loaf of supermarket-style garlic bread served in a paper-lined basket was as incongruous to the elegant setting as the glass vase holding two cheap mini-carnations and baby’s breath.

We tried five of the six starters. Though I hoped it might, the shrimp cocktail offered no new interpretation on the uninspired standard. More exciting was the pastrami-crusted sliced tuna, the peppery crust nicely offset by a sweetish soy-ginger sauce. The potstickers are described as Southern- style—a reference not only to their deep-fried cooking method, but also to their stuffing of smoked chicken in Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce. We liked them, even if they had no relation to their country of origin. We tried the oyster appetizer, an overzealous combination of spinach, bacon, two types of cheese—and, buried somewhere underneath, what I presume were oysters. The crawfish in the buerre blanc sauce served over grit cake were hiding as well.

There are two special salads to choose from. I don’t normally order tomatoes in the winter, but was glad I opted for the Tennessee tomato salad—a tower of sliced green, yellow, and red tomatoes bobbing in a bottomless pool of bleu cheese vinaigrette—over the untraditional Caesar salad, which promised an egg-less Caesar with low-fat yogurt dressing. While the salad was in fact egg-less, the thin dressing was garlic-less, anchovy-less, Parmesan-less, and flavorless. Still, even the Caesar was better than the complimentary piano bowl, with its mealy tomatoes and scant layer of limp iceberg lettuce.

I’m not sure what’s so special about any of the PJ’s Specialties; the menu’s descriptions of fried chicken, a 7-ounce tenderloin, a 12-ounce rib-eye, a grilled pork chop, yellowfin tuna, and two different pastas did not provoke any serious wrangling for possession around our table. The execution didn’t fare any better. In addition to the overcooked asparagus, undercooked grits, and cold scalloped potato sides, each dish had a saltiness so overwhelming that it made the food nearly inedible. I suspect a smoker in the kitchen, his palate seriously muddied by too many cigarettes. Worst offenders were the poor tuna, overwhelmed by its bacon wrapping, brown sauce, and mound of herbed butter, and the fried chicken, served with redeye gravy. The stuffing on the pork chop was gummy; the grilled fresh fish was dry.

Desserts did not provide the spectacular finish we hoped for. It’s tough to make a dry carrot cake, but someone managed. The Carnegie Deli cheesecake was sour, not tangy, and the chocolate bread pudding was obviously burnt, even in the dim candlelight.

Even though each entree went back to the kitchen unfinished, our server didn’t bother to ask if there was a problem with the food, as the plates clearly indicated. Nor did he offer cracked pepper, grated cheese on the salads, or more bread; nor after the initial delivery of a bottle did he offer to pour our wine. Twice, the bar was out of the wine we requested, including the very common Clos du Bois chardonnay; for heaven’s sake, someone could have run across the street to West Meade Liquors, picked up a few $12 bottles, and still made a handsome profit on the markup.

It was our decision to order starters first while we contemplated entree selections, but had we known how long it would take for the server to reappear with our main dishes, we would have ordered everything at once. According to the receipt, it was three hours from when our check was opened—10 minutes after arrival—to the time our server closed us out, and it took another half-hour to get the check back for signing, get coffee refills, and retrieve coats.

There are two schools of thought on reviewing restaurants: The standard, and the one I adhere to, is to visit anonymously; that way, a restaurant critic can have the same experience as any other diner. If an anonymous visit is impossible, the only other approach is to measure how a restaurant performs under the pressure of knowing a critic is in the house. My first—and anonymous—visit to PJ’s was serendipitous in its undercover execution. And that would have been the end of the story had the experience not been so disappointing. But any time I visit a restaurant and have an unsatisfactory meal, it is also my policy to make a return visit.

So less than a week later, I found myself back at PJ’s in a party of four. We were seated at a cozy corner table, which turned out to be a little too close to a loud party of revelers. We requested and were immediately given a different table. But, as expected, I wasn’t able to hold onto my anonymity for long.

On this outing, we began with the steamed artichoke and French onion soup. The fat artichoke and the soup were as predictable and mundane as the shrimp cocktail the weekend before. All three of these ’70s holdovers, I wager, are meant to appease the surrounding enclave of country-club Republicans, taking a night off from Nashville’s most exclusive country club just down the road.

The piano bowl salad was greatly improved on this visit, twice the size and with a nice variety of greens fleshing out the iceberg. The Tennessee tomato salad was again thoroughly doused in bleu cheese vinaigrette.

We tried the fried chicken again and found it to be just as salty as the first time, though the side dishes—which consisted of the same choices—were better executed. The accompanying fried green tomatoes were too heavily battered. Regardless of the quality, though, isn’t $17 a tad pricey for fried chicken?

I opted for the vegetarian pasta over the cavitelli, which sounded like another orgy of ingredient excess: pasta in an alfredo sauce with pine nuts, spinach, peppers, and artichoke hearts. The red sauce on the vegetarian pasta was thick and tasty, the veggies nicely cooked. The serious steak, on the other hand, failed the quality-control test of the steak connoisseur who had ordered it. The fish on the fish special was cooked to near flaky perfection, but the grilled shrimp that topped it were dry and overcooked, and there was nothing resembling crab in the pasty gray crabcake. Desserts were much fresher this time around.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, my second visit to PJ’s was superior to the first. Still, though the service and presentation were much improved, the oversalting remained a glaring problem. More subjectively, I find the menu humdrum, mundane, and dated: It doesn’t aspire to anything more than providing a dressed-up but familiar alternative to Sperry’s, a restaurant where time has stood still for more than two decades.

On the other hand, opening your own restaurant is a risky business. I can’t really blame Pinger and Jonethis for playing it safe, particularly when they’re located in a neighborhood where people aren’t known for going out on a limb. In spite of some flat notes, PJ’s 106 is apparently playing their song. It’s just not my kind of music.

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