Just as Hollywood sometimes releases two or three versions of the same tale in a single year, so too do restaurateurs sometimes converge on a concept. Remember, for example, the great cappuccino caper of the 1990s? Or when every restaurant seemed to think it had to install a wood-fired oven to stay in business? More recently, we've seen pomegranate in everything from martinis to marinade, and the proliferation of the high-concept burger joint.
In the heady days of 2010, it seemed that every week brought a new restaurant bragging about the cuts of beef in its burgers, the storied provenance of its cheese toppings or fried potatoes, and the grown-up yet childish pleasures of its alcoholic milkshakes. Things have cooled off on the burger front of late, but just because the trend has already been set doesn't mean it's too late to jump on board. A wise restaurateur can learn from the pioneers and avoid some missteps, making up for tardiness with spot-on performance and panache.
J&L Grill Co., located in the SouthSide Works and named after that site's original steel-making occupant, isn't strictly burgers and shakes. Its menu proffers wings and flatbreads, as well as other bar fare and a few traditional entrees. But the burgers are front and center, proudly house-ground and served on Mancini's rolls. We saw nothing really revelatory in the menu of topping combos, but the choice of yellow cheddar or Vermont white struck us as a sophisticated touch, and the house-made options also included turkey, salmon and veggie burgers.
Alas, there's no tiptoeing around it: The outcomes didn't match the buildup. The beef burger was good, but more comparable to a hearty, juicy bar burger than to the luxurious, short-rib-packed patties available at other burger boutiques. Now, don't get us wrong: We love a good juicy bar burger. But part of the package has to be some good fries on the side, and J&L's missed that mark. By a lot. Greasy on the outside and undercooked on the inside, the fries looked bad and tasted worse.
And, unfortunately, the beef burger was by far the best of what we had. A tough, nearly flavorless turkey burger couldn't compare (and at least one of us sometimes prefers a good turkey burger to beef). Crisp, house-made chips served alongside were a bit overseasoned, as if in overcompensation.
Things weren't much better at the top of the menu. The "Hot Rivets" appetizer looked like a cute homage to J&L Grill's loosely-held industrial theme: a bucket of bacon-wrapped morsels, with your choice of tater tot, sweet potato, pretzel nugget or kielbasa at the core, plus a bit of jalapeño for kick. But the jalapeño pepper, deprived of spicy seeds or membrane, couldn't deliver, nor could the undercooked wedge of sweet potato with which it was paired. Ultimately, this promising-looking appetizer turned out to be little more than oversold bacon.
From a host of wing options, not all of them by-the-book, we picked "Coal Fire," a blend of mango and habañero. The sauce flavor featured a nice balance of fruit and fire, but the wings themselves were small and indifferently cooked, with no sign that the skin had ever been crisp.
The misses kept coming. A garlic-parmesan chicken flatbread was nicely toasted, but tasted more of salt than of garlic. Meanwhile, a steak sandwich that promised loads of flavor from its roasted peppers, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms and horseradish mayo was, instead, bland. The steak lacked any char or smoky notes, the mayonnaise had no zing, and the roll, despite its grill marks, felt as flabby as something right out of a supermarket bag.
And, as though an industrial theme were an excuse to skip decor altogether, J&L Grill didn't even have any ambience to please our other senses. The large, hangar-like space was "decorated" almost exclusively with flat-screen TVs, and plenty of them. Friendly service, at least, added pleasure to our visit.
Ultimately, we got the impression that J&L Grill was not quite sure what it wanted to be. An oversized sports bar? A burger boutique? An industrial-themed gastropub? Neither the menu nor the decor committed fully to any one of the above. But one restaurant trend that never goes out of style is great food, and that, above all, is where J&L Grill needs some sizzle.