Restaurant Review

JL Ivy

Few mourned the 2004 closing of the Rusty Scupper, a seafood spot that offered Red Lobster-like fare at higher prices. But last May, when the vaulted post-and-beam space reopened as JL Ivy—“Serving French bistro fare and Princeton’s freshest sushi,” according to the website—many wondered if things had gone from bad to worse.

The restaurant’s identity crisis is reflected in the décor, which includes statues of the Buddha and magnums of Dom Pérignon scattered throughout the two-story space, along with tiger crests in the Tiger Bar, a second-floor watering hole with an Ivy League theme.

Seating, too, is oddly varied, from the sushi bar and stately leather booths on the ground floor to banquettes huddled under the eaves on the balcony. But don’t judge JL Ivy solely on its schizoid interior. While the food can be as erratic as the décor, it has its redemptive moments.

Owner Ed “Jean-Luc” Kleefield made his name (as well as his nickname; he is not actually French) as owner of Jean-Luc, a Manhattan bistro that closed in 2007. The event planner-turned-restaurateur also owns JLX in Sag Harbor, and he honed the steak-and-sushi concept at Prime 103 in East Hampton. 

Executive chef Julio Quisbert’s previous stints at Nobu, Raoul’s, and Tribeca Grill help him cover JL Ivy’s disparate bases. You can order sushi at any table—the website’s claim of serving “Princeton’s freshest” is no big feat, but is also no exaggeration. The fish was impeccably fresh. Memorable yellowtail tartare combined silky nuggets of fish with spicy mango salsa  and diced red pepper in a soy-ginger vinaigrette.

JL Ivy was generally on sounder footing with surf than with turf, a notable exception being kobe sliders whose crisp sear revealed a silky center under a pleasing bite of aged cheddar in a sweet brioche bun. Steaks were just okay (and for $38, I was hoping for more than onion rings with my sirloin), but a steak tartare in a lemon-and-mustard dressing was stellar. 

A trout special proved so popular it is now offered every night: The meaty fillet is completely deboned (no easy task), almond-crusted, and pan-seared in lemon brown butter with juicy capers. A combo of plump shrimp and scallops was nicely sautéed, and served with frisée. Crab-encrusted halibut, however, tasted like frozen fish sticks—lost in excessive breading and served atop a tomato-fennel salsa marred by big chunks of raw white onion. 

The wine list holds no surprises, but at least the familiar names are fairly priced. Desserts are standard, but well made—try the vanilla-and-raspberry-swirl crème brûlée with fresh raspberries, and profiteroles filled with rich house-made vanilla ice cream topped with fudge ganache. 

“We must to improve our lines of communication with the kitchen!” our emphatic server declared when a steak ordered medium-rare arrived medium-well. The steak vanished from the bill without our asking, and the fish that replaced it came on the house. When a special of raw oysters with shrimp ceviche and crabmeat gratin arrived with only three of the promised four pieces, the missing kumamoto was hustled out under a scoop of caviar. 

We ordered this dish anticipating a train wreck, but the milky oysters topped with the ceviche and a crisp crust of crab were actually pretty good. It’s the kind of unlikely mash-up that JL Ivy—itself a curious amalgam—at its best manages to pull off.

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