It's not easy keeping up with the Janeses.
Two years ago, as co-owner of Coos Bay Bistro, Jane Myers helped bring a touch of the Pacific Northwest to a University of Denver-area storefront previously occupied by an old, increasingly tired Italian joint. Seemingly within minutes, Coos Bay became a popular Denver destination, as much for its friendly ambience as for its excellent Cal-Ital fare.
Myers may have to work her magic a bit longer before her new place, the almost three-month-old Jane's on Madison, really catches on. For starters, it's in Cherry Creek, an area where restaurants spring up faster than you can say "few zoning restrictions," which makes the competition for diners fierce. In fact, it's not just in Cherry Creek, it's in the space occupied for decades by a much-loved neighborhood spot.
But Jane's is deserving of some affection, too. Myers and her brother, Chris (a part-owner who brings considerable experience to the table from his Croc's Cafe and Lodo's Bar and Grill), have transformed what used to be the charming Philippe's into what is now the charming Jane's. White walls, light window treatments, hardwood floors and an austere but tasteful collection of knickknacks give the 220-seat restaurant a feel similar to that of upscale eateries in the Keys. The breezy atmosphere held up well in the recent 100-degree weather, with both the cheerful dining rooms and two patios keeping their cool.
Chef Tony Lawrence came to Jane's via Coos Bay. He's a stable kitchen leader, but he needs to loosen up a little if dining at Jane's is going to be a real adventure. The food is colorful and flavorful, but it sometimes could use an extra boost. For instance, the Newport Bay mussels ($6.90)--many items on the menu have names inspired by Oregon, where the Myers family originated--came steamed in white wine but needed more thyme to turn up the sweetness (a surprising omission, since Lawrence displays an overall fondness for sugary ingredients) and set off the perfect ripeness of the diced tomatoes. The mussels themselves, however, were tender and absolutely fresh. But it would have been hard to improve on the Portland portabellos ($6.90): The mushrooms had been marinated and grilled until crisp-edged and moist-centered, then layered with thin potato pancakes and drizzled with a tart tomato-basil vinaigrette.
Of the three entrees we tried on our first visit, only the macadamia mahi ($17.90) came up short. The nut crust was superb, and the caramel mango beurre blanc didn't taste as though it would be better suited to apples, as I'd feared from the description, but the fish was dry and had an off flavor. And the sides, a timbale-shaped pyramid of saffron-colored (but not saffron-flavored) rice and a smattering of steamed vegetables, lacked oomph: The rice was dry and needlessly sculptured, and the vegetables were undercooked. No sides came with the other two dishes, but they were just fine on their own. The ravioli grande ($15.90) took two huge pasta pillows filled with ricotta and parmesan cheeses, topped them with scallops and shrimp, and laid them in a buttery red-pepper cream sauce. The Puget Sound paella ($15.90) featured well-cooked Arborio rice bolstered by saffron and tomatoes and covered with a good day's catch of shrimp, scallops and fish.
Our second meal at Jane's started with the gift-wrapped Brie ($5.90), a beautiful triangle of cheese papered with puff pastry and baked until evenly browned, then sparked by a blackberry-heavy coulis. The rack of lamb ($19.90) delivered ribs dripping with melted goat cheese, draped with spinach, and further wetted down with a tomato sauce that could have used more rosemary. (Lawrence has got to get over being so timid with the seasonings.) We ignored another pile of blah rice, as well as the incredibly bland saute of summer vegetables.
By the time I returned to Jane's for a third round, the restaurant had already sustained a one-two punch from Denver's dueling daily reviewers, who'd thumped "plain Jane" for an assortment of sins. As a result of those reviews, Jane's had lowered its prices by about a buck an entree, which brings the restaurant more securely into the Cherry Creek fold of "new American dining." But the Myerses also had revamped the menu, renaming the paella "risotto" (it tastes just as good under the new label), dumping some of the heavier entrees (as well as a chicken dish that one hired belly had described as visually pornographic) and replacing them with more innovative concoctions. I ordered one of the new items, a salad of prosciutto with melon and blackberries ($6.90) that paired the classic duo of salt-cured ham and cantaloupe with berries and a wild-berry vinaigrette. The salad was interesting but came up short on cantaloupe, a complaint echoed by a nearby table when the diners nabbed the manager to discuss their meal.
To the manager's credit, he responded by traipsing to the kitchen and fetching a small plate of melon balls. Sadly, that's where this guy's helpfulness ended. While I sat through my one-and-a-half-hour meal--at least a half-hour too long for a lone diner to endure lunch--I watched ignored guests languish in the foyer while the manager chatted with a friend in the downstairs dining room, where he would run the second he finished whatever annoying official restaurant task he'd been forced to perform. Much of their friendly chitchat was a loud discourse on the two negative reviews, complete with swearing and critic-bashing that could be heard by a dining room full of people upstairs. This flagrant disregard for business lost Jane's at least two customers: After waiting almost ten minutes to be seated, a pair of men walked out in disgust, and a half-dozen already-seated parties were visibly irritated with the service (or lack thereof) before the waitstaff finally got wise and got the manager moving. But even then, service didn't improve much. This guy simply was not acting as the backup he was supposed to be: When the staff found itself in the weeds, there was no weed-whacker in sight.
I never saw any bread (neither did two tables near me), I had to wait fifteen minutes for my check, and the stretch of time between that melon-impaired salad and my entree of crab cakes ($8.90) was close to interminable. Fortunately, the fabulous crab cakes were worth the wait: Lump crabmeat had been gently pressed together with red bell peppers and fried leek strips, then dampened by a sweet-and-sour mustard blend and fried until coated with a fragile, buttery shell. And for once the side was worthy of the item it was accompanying. The skin-on fries, which had been sprinkled with parmesan and fresh basil before a dip in the deep-fryer, were as good as any I've tried.
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But the flourless chocolate cake ($4) topped even that. A savvy version of a dessert that's often too rich and sweet, this cake was deceptively light and spongy, heavy on chocolate but not sugar, and modestly garnished with fresh strawberries, blackberries, a topping that resembled homemade chocolate pudding in taste and consistency, and a dusting of powdered sugar. This far-from-plain Jane's meal proves that the kitchen knows how to dress its food for success.
Jane's clearly has a ways to go before it's perfect, but Myers has the talent to take it there...with time. Which is something the dailies apparently weren't willing to give the restaurant. In their hurry to be first, both reviewers critiqued Jane's less than two months after it had opened. Not fair, guys: It takes at least two months to work out the timing kinks, remove deadwood staffers and fine-tune such variables as price, menu choices and wine selections. Former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller had a policy of not reviewing a place until it had been operating for six months--not just to give it time to get on its feet, he explained, but also to be sure it was going to stay open long enough for him to get reimbursed for his meals.
Then, adding insult to injury, one of the reviews was written by a daily staffer filling in for the regular guy. Please, God, if I'm ever foolish enough to open a restaurant, let it not be reviewed by someone who describes a brandy-snap tuile as "like a pizzelle but...darker" and who quotes dinner companions as saying things like, "A restaurant isn't all food; it needs some ambience."
What Jane's needs is a break.