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LJ's proves less can be more

Restaurant is part of new upscale dining landscape

Restaurant is part of new upscale dining landscape

March 12, 2006|By PHILIP McGULLET

The social sport of the day in Washington County is fretting over our rapid growth. New housing developments, new shopping centers and new office complexes are popping up all around, and, of course, this is simply dreadful.

Yeah, yeah, we know; roads and schools will be overcrowded. Pristine farmland will be gulped up by greedy developers. Maddening storms of commuters will rush the interstate each morning and afternoon at awful hours that barely allow them to see their home county in daylight hours.

We feel your pain. But as long as growth is coming anyway, why not kick back and enjoy some of the perks of population? One of the finer perks is LJ's and the Kat Lounge, just off Eastern Boulevard in an area that could become Hagerstown's upscale dining district.

Safe to say, nothing like LJ's existed in the town's pre-growth years, nor could it have. It is unapologetically pricey, noisy and powerful, a little slice of Manhattan just a stone's throw away from the silos and cows. And with cuisine this tempting, a restaurant can be anything it wants.

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LJ's is a different experience from the dignified civility of Nick's Airport Inn, the romance of Roccoco and Old South Mountain Inn or the soft piano and foliage of Al Pomodoro, some of the other entries at the top of the county's food chain. The large dining room with its see-through kitchen is minimalist and almost industrial in nature with a high, peaked ceiling that does to human voices what Echo Canyon does to a barking dog. But no matter, it is not a dining room for whispering sweet nothings; it is a dining room for raising your voice and being someone, by golly.

Recommended attire is "smart," making you appreciate the fact that Einstein hated suits. LJ's even provides a box of reading glasses for those who have trouble reading menus in dim light- that, or as one in our party suggested, to help you look smarter.

The top-notch staff also helps you feel that you matter. They are professional without being stiff, and detail-oriented but still ready to break into a smile and share a joke. The effect is a clubby feeling, but one in which you are immediately a member. Professionalism without pretension is a fine line, and the staff walks it well.

The menu itself is emblematic of LJ's relatively straightforward, American fare. Eight inches square with a cover the hue of stainless steel, the menu presents fare that does not go reaching around the globe for some exotic fusion of never-been-tried-before ingredients.

Where LJ's cuisine does break the rules, such as with a playful appetizer of lobster and grits, the foundations are solid and the combinations work. The dishes never leave you wondering exactly what it was the chef was trying to prove.

The appetizers, in the $5 to $10 range, are just that - clear, delectable flavors to get you excited about the courses to come. A foie gras encouraged tiny bites, to savor every creamy, wonderful morsel. Crusty short ribs came dry, leaving the moist, fork-tender meat to speak ably for itself.

LJ's deserves special mention for its salads, which, like everything else, were assembled with care and thoughtfulness. Avoiding the predictable marriage of leaf lettuce with the cherry tomato, they came in two styles: A warmly well-dressed bed of spinach leaves, or a delightfully refreshing julienne of endive and apples with walnuts and blue cheese.

Entree prices begin in the mid teens and top out over $30. A smoked and well-aged strip steak of honest size is a delight to the true beefeater who is untamed by chains that rely on buckets of chemical meat tenderizer.

Among our party was an honest-to-goodness native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, who views any crab cake west of Annapolis with suspicion. While commenting that they were a touch heavy on such filler elements as green pepper (on the Shore, anything non-crab, even parsley, can be considered filler), they nonetheless passed with flying colors.

The lamb shank that crowned a delicious heap of garlicky mashed potatoes drew rave reviews, with its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and slightly sweet glaze. From an extensive wine list, chicly presented in a wooden box, the lamb lover in our group chose the perfect vintage to complement the succulent shank.

A cashew-crusted buttermilk chicken with truffle-flavored scalloped potatoes was served with fine herb pan sauce and corn relish. Aside from being a little crispier in spots than others, the chicken was perfectly prepared and very tender.

The potatoes and corn relish also were good, which were mixed together on the plate, creating a stew both complementary and tasty.

Less impressive was a pork chop which, although thick and succulent, was bathed in a barbecue-style sauce that the diner said could have been toned down to advantage, more in keeping with LJ's philosophy that less can be more.

LJ's dessert menu also offers a sweet for every tooth, with treats ranging from crme brle to honey almond cake with vanilla cream to marinated winter fruit. We tried the lemon chiffon tart, coffee cake with cream-cheese ice cream, and LJ's super-chocolaty brownie - by far our favorite way to end a magnificent meal.




LJ's and the Kat Lounge

1130 Conrad Court, Hagerstown

4 1/2 stars

Food: 5 stars (out of 5)

Value: 4 stars

Service: 5 stars

Ambience: 4 stars

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