September 18, 2008

John Thomas Steakhouse

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John Thomas. The standby for birthdays, first dates and various other celebratory meals. The first time I ventured into J.T. was about four years ago, on my first visit to Cornell with my mother. We marveled at the Christmas lights on the trees (we were visiting in November and didn’t realize that the Christmas lights stayed up year long), we laughed at the silly hunting-themed placeholders and tried to be patient while the waiter paused after every syllable and slooooowly informed us of the specials.
Four years later, I no longer marvel at the tacky (but somewhat charming) Christmas lights, I ignore the placeholders and I still suffer through the Dorcia-like reciting of the specials, despite the fact that they almost always involve shrimp bisque and beef tournados with a wild mushroom demi-glace.
But in my four years of the occasional John Thomas meal, dining there has become a sort of science. A delightful, but wildly overpriced, science.
Every standard dinner at J.T. begins with a cocktail (or several). These cocktails are strong but well made; I recommend an Old Fashioned or some form of martini. Following the cocktail, most parties will peruse the wine list.
While the wine list is impressive for the area and carries most standard bottles (as well as some more rare, impressive selections), it also bears the most inflated wine prices that I’ve seen outside of Manhattan. My personal favorite started at $40 when it debuted on the menu about two years ago; these days it is up to a healthy $80 and still manages to be one of the least expensive offerings.
Next, of course, are appetizers. The “special” shrimp bisque is quite good (though they don’t always have it), as are most salads and the calamari. But the shining star is the baked brie. A healthy portion of brie, melted to perfection inside a lovely pastry crust and plated over the most delightful raspberry sauce. It is the most delicious baked brie I have ever encountered and I used to make special trips to South Hill just to get an order of brie to go. The brie, frankly, makes the meal. But, of course, there are the entrees.
John Thomas is a steakhouse, so naturally there is meat. There are a few chicken entrees, as well as pork chops and a few seafood offerings. (The lobster is a good size and generally quite fresh, but I recommend against ordering it when others are picking up the tab, as the market price usually rings in around $85 for a two-three lb lobster.) The chicken options are boring and I’ve never tried any of the fish specials, but the steak is quite good.
While J.T.’s is no Luger’s, you can get a good piece of meat cooked to your liking. I recommend the porterhouse (for two) or the aforementioned tournados. Often, the waiter will not mention the tournados as a special, but they almost always have a few orders in the back. Small and tender, the tournados are like two mini filets, but with less of a char and infinitely more tender. The accompanying mushroom demi-glace complements them well, and I have been known to cry when they are out of orders (that is not actually true, but I have pouted for a while).
When you’re done with your meal, one of John Thomas’ minions will roll over the dessert tray, which always seems like a good idea after a few cocktails and a bottle of wine. The desserts, however, are lackluster. Always the same (chocolate cake, key lime pie, flourless chocolate torte, apple pie and a few other boring options) and never that fresh, dessert is always a disappointment. However, if you absolutely must end your meal with something sweet, I recommend getting the chocolate cake, having them heat it up and pour a shot of Bailey’s or Chambord over it. The cake soaks up the liquor nicely and it adds some moisture and flavor that it otherwise lacks. (I learned this dessert trick from one of my favorite servers there.)
Unavoidably, at the end of the night you will have to split the check (ranging from reasonable to downright offensive) and argue over who drives home. But, regardless of a few setbacks, the food is good, the drinks are better and you will never have a boring meal at John Thomas.