It took chutzpah to envision a fine-dining restaurant along a gritty strip of Route 9 in Old Bridge, especially one situated behind a Delta gas station and virtually hidden from the highway. Perhaps a more appropriate term than chutzpah is naglost, its Russian equivalent, since Just’s backers also own the nine-year-old Russian food market to which the newly constructed space is attached.
As Jay Grupinski, the GM, related in a phone call, “The owners enjoy the New York fine-dining scene, and thought, why not here?” At the end of that curious rainbow the owners have delivered a glamorous, if windowless, contemporary dining room with charcoal gray accents, a glass wine wall, red-upholstered chairs and banquettes and a soundtrack of bizarre electronica from Sirius XM’s Chill channel. On weekends the space easily transitions into a late-night lounge with DJs. To a young, hip crowd, Just’s tucked-away location and gritty surroundings just might signal ultimate chic.
“When guests walk through our doors the first time,” Grupinski said, “it makes the ‘wow’ factor that much greater.”
The owners chose the name Just, a server informed us, for its ambiguity. The ambiguity of the food is probably not the kind they had in mind. The dishes—tuna tartare, sliders combining beef filet and foie gras, burrata with beet carpaccio, free-range organic chicken, roasted branzino, dry-aged strip steak and multi-part desserts—are in today’s upscale casual mainstream. Yet under executive chef Ira Siegel, a CIA-trained veteran of such stalwarts as the Waldorf-Astoria, Caesars Palace (Las Vegas) and Wolfgang Puck Catering, the presentation is often surprisingly formal. Tuna tartare, for example, comes as a carefully constructed napoleon; Caesar salad is served in a basket made of vertical fingers of toasted brioche tied with chives.
There are retro touches, too, like warm popovers and a complimentary fruit granita between courses. Too often freebies like those and the jewel-like amuse-bouches represent the high-water marks of dinner—which, with cocktail, wine and the 18 percent gratuity tacked on to every check, even a table for two, can run to $100 a person. Appetizers and entrées that sound tempting and look ravishing often fail to deliver on taste.
Under-seasoning weakened otherwise well-cooked dishes of roast chicken, skate wing and a chicken consommé with a beautiful but bland phyllo beggar’s purse filled with minced vegetables. Almost every hot dish arrived at nearly room temperature. That lessened the appeal of a nicely pan-seared duck breast and confited leg, but made soggy eggplant the coup de grace for an already lifeless roasted vegetable tower.
Though plenty flavorful, the fish in the tuna napoleon and a salad of sesame-crusted ahi tuna with crispy leeks and tamari ginger dressing was mushy. Burrata lacked creaminess and fresh dairy flavor. The brioche basket did not compensate for its bland and soggy Caesar. “This doesn’t work,” lamented one companion, pushing away dense, doughy globs of potato gnocchi.
Actually, the odd thing about Just is that some things work wonderfully well. Those foie gras and beef sliders? Irresistible, as are the hot and crispy straw potatoes they come with. An entrée of big, juicy knobs of sweet Maine lobster knocked me out, even before I tasted its brandied lobster sauce, of which Escoffier would be proud. A standout among several good desserts by pastry chef and CIA-grad Lauren Genco is her flourless chocolate cake coated in mousse. Just’s solid wine list includes smart choices in the $30 to $60 range. Manager Grupinski said he has added more high-end selections in an effort “to try to get into the Top 100 in Wine Spectator.”
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