Years ago, when I heard about the Seafood Watch pocket guide produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I printed it out and tucked it in my wallet. Then, before ordering at restaurants, I'd scan the list to see if the fish I wanted fell in the red "avoid" column, skipping it if it did. Although the guide helped me make conscientious choices, it also led to many awkward moments. Servers often grew flustered, ill-equipped to answer my queries about where and how the fish was caught. Friends viewed my questions with suspicion, as if I were a high-maintenance version of Meg Ryan ordering dressing on the side.
See also: A Closer Look at Jax Glendale
How times have changed -- and not just because Seafood Watch now comes in an app. "People want to know where they're getting their food," says executive chef Sheila Lucero, who's been with Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar since 1997 and has seen a surge of interest in sustainability. "Traceability is huge." In response, more and more restaurants are taking responsibility and removing the awkwardness that once fell on guests' shoulders. At the four Jax locations, servers are quizzed daily in pre-service about menus and specials. And earlier this year, Jax joined more than a hundred restaurants nationwide as an official Seafood Watch partner, guaranteeing that none of the fish or shellfish served falls on the red list. This makes interactions with servers more like the friendly exchanges they should be, and less like an inquisition.
Indeed, the only people I really wanted to interrogate one night when I stopped by the newest member of the family, Jax Glendale, were the developers of CitySet, a project with two hotels, a host of restaurants, and a parking garage the size of a pea. By the time I reached my table, I felt like I'd been Christmas shopping at the mall, stalking someone to the garage in order to claim his spot. But the restaurant was hopping, transforming my negative energy watt for watt with the happy buzz that comes from so many people under one roof -- and on top of it, seated at Hi^Jax, the 120-seat rooftop patio that reopened for the season late last month.
Unlike Jax's sister locations in LoDo, Fort Collins and Boulder, the Glendale space was a new buildout, and the restaurant has a polished, contemporary look. Walls are sea-colored and bedecked with photographs and art. Windows flood the interior with light. Bar-side columns are filled with oyster shells, a fun touch given the ice-filled raw bar nearby. Even bathrooms perpetuate the theme, with silver sinks resembling rolling waves and shiny blue doors. It's a testament to both the decor's relaxing vibe and our affable server that I never once had the urge to scribble on the paper-lined table with the complimentary crayons, not even to vent the parking-related profanities that had been dominating my thoughts just moments before.
Without the burden of defending a fish's provenance or catch method, servers have plenty of time to field questions about other things. Oyster varieties, for example, which they're able to rattle off with the comfort of someone who's slurped more than a few, talking about the differences between East and West coasts in a non-pedantic way that encourages oyster neophytes to take the slippery plunge. They do such a good job describing the salty, mild or sweet morsels that on more than one occasion, I've caught myself adding a few oysters to my already substantial order, as if the bivalves were an impulse buy at the checkout counter.
And the servers need time to talk about non-seafood-related topics, since the menu, while full of details on exclusive oyster varieties, purveyors and sustainability, is more sparse when it comes to dish descriptions. Entrees, grouped under the heading of "Spring Specialties," are just as likely to include a listing of ingredients as they are details of what the kitchen has done with them. So I wouldn't have known that the pan-seared halibut came with a smear of carrot purée if the server hadn't volunteered this information. I'm glad she did; that detail -- along with a tidbit she served up about the accompanying housemade cavatelli -- clinched my order, given how well fish and purées go together. Keep reading for the rest of the review of Jax Glendale.
The halibut, one of eleven new items on the spring menu, was a standout celebration of the season, with fresh-shelled peas, asparagus and sautéed pea tendrils that looked like sautéed watercress but tasted far sweeter. Tuna togarashi was another table favorite, with fat wedges of seared tuna rubbed with togarashi, an increasingly popular Japanese seven-spice blend with hints of orange, paprika and chile. The real heat on the plate, though, came from a tangle of Korean chile-slicked soba playfully topped with grilled, nearly raw baby bok choy. Both dishes -- served only at Jax Glendale -- grew out of the collaboration between Lucero, who splits her time among locations, and Glendale's talented crew, overseen by chef Duane Walker.
With its current quartet of locations and a fifth to open in Kansas City this summer, Jax -- part of the Boulder-based Big Red F Restaurant Group -- technically qualifies as a chain, albeit a high-end, locally owned one. As such, guests could be forgiven for expecting identical menus and experiences. But that's not the reality, in large part because of the creative license given to each kitchen. Yes, there's enough overlap on the menus to keep fans happy, such as peel-and-eat shrimp, crabcakes and the lobster roll. That last item pleased even me, someone who's been spoiled by many an oceanside lobster roll in Maine, with sweet meat hardly marred by aioli on a buttered, toasted, split-top brioche roll. Housemade malt-vinegar chips were a nice addition, far better than the soggy fries or coleslaw I'm used to getting. And other dishes that feel familiar from other Jax locations still bear the Glendale kitchen's mark. Chowder tempts with the same luscious garlic-cream base used at the Jax in LoDo, only here it's rounded out with mussels and shrimp, not just clams. Gumbo, too, has been tweaked to good advantage: In Glendale, it's served not just by the bowl, but as a moat around an island of creamy polenta and a cornmeal-crusted catfish fillet.
This independence, however, is bounded by corporate knowledge of what has and has not worked over the years, giving the nearly year-old Jax Glendale a self-assurance that normally takes restaurants longer to develop. One area that is still maturing, however, is lunch: Judging by a slow crowd the day I dropped by, it will take more time for folks to catch on to the fact that a) this Jax serves lunch (currently it is the only one that does); and b) sit-down restaurants of this caliber can be found in a part of town where fast-casuals tend to reign.
Also in need of maturing are certain items on the board, such as the celery-root bisque, which was as thick as yesterday's gravy. Milk-chocolate creme reminded why desserts often begin with bittersweet. A starter called pork n' cabbage -- this fish house's take on crispy Brussels sprouts -- was disappointing because the intriguing "fish caramel" was applied with too heavy a hand. Spring-garlic tater tots were nestled on a bed of smoked-trout aioli that tasted like straight Hollandaise -- but even so, I still nearly finished the plate, if only to lap up every bit of the lemon powder that felt like bright snowflakes melting on my tongue.
For curious types, that lemon powder was made with lemon-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and tapioca maltodextrin, a substance that turns fat-based liquids into powder. But maybe you've already asked your server about it; if so, she probably knew the answer, given all those pre-service quizzes at Jax.
Select menu items at Jax Glendale
Fresh-shucked oysters mkt
Spring-garlic tater tots $9
Pork n' cabbage $9
Celery-root bisque $5/9
Seafood chowder $14
Lobster roll $24
Fried catfish $13
Pan-seared halibut $32
Tuna togarashi $32
Milk-chocolate creme $8
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Jax Glendale is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit jaxglendale.com.