JJ's offers cafe fare without frills
There are times when a long, flowery introduction is necessary. There are restaurants that require a surfeit of words to convey all the subtleties of a room's ambiance, or scenarios in which, to understand the new direction of a particular restaurant, you must first understand its history. This isn't one of those times. "I mean, the food isn't great," said my dining companion matter-of-factly after a visit to JJ's Coffee and Wine Bistro, the new Minneapolis outpost of the Eden Prairie ladies-who-lunch staple. "It's the kind of meal my parents would throw together if I were to show up at their house on a weeknight and they had to quickly make something I'd be able to eat," the veteran vegetarian continued. "But the thing is, really, if I'm coming here for a glass of wine and to chat with a friend, I wouldn't be mad at this $9 pizza."
That's not to say JJ's isn't worthy of having its back-story told or that it doesn't put forth an effort in its presentation. On the contrary, it really does make a good first impression. From the heartfelt welcome note written by the owners, to the sunny outdoor patio, to the dark wood interior and eye-popping accents of white leather bar stools, floor-to-ceiling-windows, and cute-as-a-Pinterest-board coolie lamp shades, JJ's smartly capitalizes on its lakefront location and consistent foot traffic. But some of these elements actually end up working against JJ's by creating an expectation that the food, especially with the way some items are priced, will match the cosmopolitan setting and the intention and enthusiasm that are apparent in all other aspects of the JJ's experience. That's what my dining companion's comment underlined so succinctly. JJ's concept may give food a supporting, rather than starring, role, but it performs satisfactorily if you've already cast it as that character in your mind.
Overall, most of JJ's dishes seemed very pre-fab, a little Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, but founders/owners Mark and Jenny Jundt aren't aiming to compete with more upscale Uptown hot spots like Barbette, Lucia's, and Amore Victoria. I mean, you'd never get a Morningstar Farms spicy chipotle black bean burger served to you at Lucia's, but they're on the menu (along with the garden burger variety) at JJ's. More disappointment came delivered in the form of a chopped salad adorned with gorgonzola, gloopy dressing, that kind of precooked, heat-and-eat bacon that never tastes real, and big, spongy cubes of chicken breast with suspiciously perfect grill marks on them. Needless to say, that was at the very saddest end of the scale. It was also obviously not representative of all the salads, because JJ's Greek version was perfectly good and did not skimp on the pungent, salty feta. Be sure to skip the flatbread pizzas, which are very flat indeed (both in the rise of the crust and in the flavor of everything on them), in favor of the lavosh pizzas, which were actually crispy and came topped with Havarti.
Other items proved much more enjoyable but were all the type of thing that's really hard to screw up. Nachos are, as a rule, good because they are tortilla chips covered in melted cheese and JJ's were covered with plenty of cheese. The shrimp cocktail, presented in a martini glass, came with a horseradish-forward cocktail sauce. As I ate those fresh, chilly shrimp on JJ's patio and sipped from my glass of Nicolas Feuillatte Rose Brut (as the menu suggested), I felt fancy. Fancy like I did when I was granted permission to order a Shirley Temple from the bar as a child. The cheese plates, though imperative at a wine bar, didn't offer any intrepid selections: Brie, cheddar, mascarpone (which they were out of each time I tried to order it), and gruyere all got the job done, but in the most perfunctory way. In a town where we are used to seeing the cave-aged, raw-sheep's-milk stuff on dessert menus and now have our very own cheese festival, these options could be ratcheted up a notch or two. The little dishes of mini-meatballs in an otherwise dull marinara sauce were good when paired with a side of olive-oil-drenched grilled ciabatta, but again, few things are bad when served with oil-drenched bread.
So the fare is perhaps more "coffee shop standards" than "European bistro" (or, as one dining companion said, "It feels like someone else went to Lunds for you"), but it's a good, manageable number of dishes. As a silver lining, the simple preparations equal short ticket times, so your food comes out just after you've had your first few sips of wine. People appreciate that, and it makes this place all the more conducive to trying out some new things, wine-wise. The lengthy drink menu comes with a conversion chart, showing suggested wines for beer drinkers, beers for wine drinkers, and even wine-to-wine road maps, all designed to help you discover something new. We did find the suggestions to be prudent and for the most part very well matched. The light sweetness and lively qualities of a Hoegaarden beer came through stunningly in the suggested moscato wine equivalent. When I went from wine to wine, where I would normally scan and order the first good-looking fruity, big zinfandel I saw, I instead enjoyed their recommended super-smooth, dry, but still juicy Crusher Petite Sirah. The only downside to these road maps is that it seemed like servers relied heavily on these charts for suggestions and information, rather than on their own intimate knowledge of the wine. Still, it's a helpful idea and a great solution for the indecisive customer.
Because JJ's doesn't have a full liquor license, it compensates with several sake-based cocktails. Though I have had these replacement beverages at many a wine bar, I can't think of a place where they were as well mixed or as delicious as at JJ's. The homemade bloody Mary mix and super-sour homemade margarita mix really sealed the deal. The end result was almost better than the tequila-based original. Operating as a coffee bar by day (with biscuit sandwiches and other breakfasty fare), JJ's makes a full complement of espresso drinks, but I found that the coffee was better when stripped down to basic lattes and Americanos rather than the flavored novelty beverages.
So, maybe a flowery intro to JJ's wasn't necessary, but as we were left sipping a crisp, fragrant white wine, feeling the heat of another summer day fading into evening, we talked about breakups, reunions, the meatballs, the claret, the economy, the impending fall. We were equally about all things serious and all things silly. And as we got to the bottom of our glasses and the sky over Calhoun turned a dusky, rose-gold color, I got the feeling that maybe a flowery conclusion would be appropriate.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.