Executive chef Emily Hansen quickly discovered the danger of focusing on comfort food at the new John J’s Chow Hall -- everybody compares the fare to what they know or are used to.
Take the fried chicken, for example.
“We had varying public opinion on it when we first opened,” Hansen said.
Some customers thought it needed more breading; others thought it needed less.
“It was kind of a Goldilocks situation,” Hansen said. “I think we’ve found good balance. It’s moist, and it’s still crispy.”
Indeed, it is. I’m in the “little breading” camp. I want to enjoy the meat without being overwhelmed by crunch. On my visit, John J’s served up a tender breast and wing that met with my approval. The breading had just enough crisp and spices without taking away from the meat’s flavor.
John J’s, located inside the Graduate Hotel at Ninth and P streets, opened June 2. It has its own entrance on P Street. It replaces the Red Onion, which was the in-house restaurant of the Downtown Holiday Inn before it became the Graduate.
According to Hansen, the new hotel came up with the comfort food concept, and hired her to implement it. A graduate of Southeast Community College’s culinary program, she brings to the hotel restaurant a breadth of local experience, including stints as sous chef at Ploughshare and The Cornhusker Marriott.
The restaurant is named for John J. Pershing, a World War I general with Nebraska ties. His photo hangs above the reception desk.
Open for breakfast and dinner only, with brunch served on the weekends, John J’s menu is small, but the entrees are hearty, which you would expect with comfort food. Dinner “plates” include fried chicken, grilled salmon, pan-fried catfish, meatloaf and country steak. Breakfast “plates” offered are three-egg omelet, buttermilk biscuits, Belgian waffle, chocolate chip oatmeal flapjacks and challah French toast.
In addition to the fried chicken, my wife and I sampled the grilled salmon, which Hansen said is the restaurant’s top seller. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, the salmon came out moist with a nice char.
Dinner plates range from $10 to $15, depending on how many sides are ordered. The sides -- macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, corn on the cob, baked beans, etc. -- reminded us of foods (and tastes) we grew up enjoying.
The complimentary cornbread was a highlight. Baked in small cast-iron pans and served with honey butter, it’s a delicious way to start your meal.
Salads also come with each order. Oddly, they were served already tossed with Ranch dressing. I would give the diner the option of pre-tossing and/or other dressing choices -- Nebraska-made Dorothy Lynch seems like a natural for a comfort food restaurant.
John J’s features a special gameday menu, which includes homemade hush puppies and meatballs.
While John J’s food prices were reasonable, especially for a hotel, the drinks were not. My wife enjoyed one of the specialty drinks, which featured a homemade ginger honey syrup, but it cost $8, almost as much as her meal ($12). I had a pint of a Nebraska Brewing Co. Cardinal Pale Ale for $6. The next day I bought a six-pack of Cardinal Pale Ale for $7.48 at a local grocery store. Grade: B
Taking a page from the Graduate, with its unique, nostalgia-looking rooms, John J’s is a sight to behold. The restaurant features a tiki hut theme, which extends to drinks served in coconut- and totem-shaped mugs.
Especially eye-catching is the back wall where the oven used for baking cornbread is located. It’s adorned with mismatched tile pieces that provide an avant-garde feel. The large mural on another wall remains from the Red Onion, but a giant American flag drapes over much of it.
Seating is varied, from high-top tables along the windows looking out on P Street to regular tables and island-themed booths in the dining area. The room is large, so despite the concrete floors, it wasn’t loud. But that could change if it’s packed with people. Grade: A.
My wife and I visited on a slow Thursday evening, so we pretty much had a server (and the kitchen) to ourselves. Needless to say, our service was exceptional.
“Family-style rations” of fresh cornbread and salad are served to every table, meaning it’s all-you-can-eat. The bread and salads arrived prior to our entrees. We enjoyed a second order of cornbread with our meals.
John J’s is one of the few Lincoln restaurants offering reservations through Open Table. Grade: A.
Hansen interned for Lincoln gluten-free eating advocate Beckee Moreland, so this is an area of importance to her. She said she hopes to eventually expand gluten-free and vegetarian menu options. Currently, diners can combine five of the nine side items into a meal ($9). Many of those are gluten-free and vegetarian. Grilled salmon is the lone gluten-free dinner entree, while the three-egg omelet is the only GF breakfast option. Grade: C+