For latest visits, see 2012 Summer dinners
We keep being drawn back to this intimate, yet vibrant dining room; a place with a good, energetic “vibe” and very good fare. When looking in through the windows of this inviting space, you will see it filled (already pretty early in the evening) with seemingly happy people talking (some of them loud), laughing, enjoying drinks by the bar and/or enjoying their meals.
When entering, you may be greeted by one of the friendly waiters, but more likely the delightful hostess-owner Deborah Williamson. Deborah will greet you as though you were a regular even if it is your first visit. It seems important to her that everyone who enters is going to be happy. No attitude, just a genuine warmth and friendliness, which is a thing still too rare in this city.
James’ website describes itself as “a seasonal-American restaurant with old-world European influences” and the chef-owner, Bryan Calvert, is very good at preparing that food.
We have been happily surprised by how fresh everything has been –and also by how well everything is prepared. Even seemingly simple dishes have been surprisingly delicious, almost possessing an extra element. Umami? Maybe.
The last thing I ate there was crepes (Crepes with Parmacotto, Manchego, Sweet Marjoram Béchamel) for brunch. The dish has been “haunting” me since then. How can something seemingly so simple and basic be so delicious? My guess: Fresh, quality ingredients, fresh preparation and a talented chef who knows what he is doing. Maybe you can add: the right kind of pride (love) in your trade. So I guess we are a little bit smitten.
When I decided to find out more about James and the people behind it, I discovered, among other things, that Mr. Calvert has worked at Bouley and at Union Pacific. Well, now. The pieces of the puzzle fall nicely into place, explaining a lot. We used to adore Bouley, especially the original Bouley, where we had one of the best meals in our lives. I also really, really liked Union Pacific. Who knows, maybe I sampled Mr. Calvert's magic already there.
We I have also learned that James has its own herb garden. That also tells something, maybe about a serious, respectful attitude toward food and its ingredients. We discovered James pretty recently, but since then, we have had 7 dinners & 3 brunches there. We tend to sample the same dishes many times; that is a good way to test the consistency of a kitchen. It is also a great excuse to keep eating a dish that you like. Also, many fine restaurants, James included, have only a few options for a vege-lacto-pescatarian (my husband). So, while I can more or less eat through any menu over time, at James my husband's choices are fairly limited.
The place is mobbed during weekend evenings, the crowd seems to like both the martinis and the food, before heading out to other entertainment. The noise level is high.
Some of the starters we have sampled so far, some of them several times:-Crispy Sweetbreads, Hubbard Squash, Truffles, Port Wine Reduction ($12)
In a new (to me) restaurant, I like to order the sweetbreads if the dish is on the menu: that is one of my ways of testing and comparing different kitchens. James’ sweetbreads were perfectly crispy on the outside and delicate on the inside. Quite tasty. The truffles and the port wine reduction were a splendid pairing. But the squash, while good in itself, in my opinion made the dish a bit too heavy, and in that way took a bit away from the delicious sweetbreads.
But I ate the whole thing, even though I had promised myself to leave room for the main course. [My dining companion (a/k/a “Husband”) does not eat red meat, so he could not "help" me here].
-Spinach Salad, Shiitake Mushrooms & Parmesan Reggiano, Balsamico ($10)
I like it that the spinach salad is so generous. We order this one a lot, because I like spinach and enjoy getting my daily portion of it in such a delicious form. It comes dressed in tasty balsamico and a mixture of shiitake mushrooms and parmesan-reggiano which, in addition to textures, add a different, delicious dimension to the salad. (Afterword in 2012: This salad is now less than half the size it was in 2009 /2010)
-Cauliflower Soup with Smoked Trout and Fresh Herbs ($10)
The cauliflower soup was tasty, although a bit too creamy for our taste. The smoked trout pieces in the soup were terrific and I found myself hoping there had been more of them… or maybe a dish where the smoked trout got to play the main role.
-Roasted Baby Beets, Toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Warm Goat Cheese ($11)
The roasted baby beets are very nice too, on of the lighter “small plates”, especially if you ask the chef to go light on the warm goat cheese “dressing”.
Brunch time at Restaurant James:
-Spring Onion Soup with Boar Lardon and Pecorino Romano ($10)
A very different Onion soup. The taste is delicate and the texture is velvety (or "creamy"). Very good.
A wonderful scallop dish. I have lost count on how many times we have ordered this dish. Delicious.
My husband had this - black & blue- and enjoyed it. But my palate had a clash with, what felt like and odd, hard flavor in the dish... Unfortunately, I was not able to identify the source of it. Maybe it was the seasoning for the tuna ...? But that was just me, my husband still thinks it was good.
-Half-Dozen East Coast Oysters with Red Wine Mignonette ($16)
We love these Oysters and order them often.
Some of the main courses we have sampled so far, a few of them several times:
House Pasta of the Day.
The has been delicious so far -made the same day, of course - and always cooked perfectly al dente.
We have sampled three pasta specials so far:
- Ravioli w. Duck and Foie Gras ($17).
- Tagliatelle w. Braised Rabbit ($17) .
- Ravioli w. Pig Cheeks, Caramelized Cipollini Onions & Cipollini Onion Puree ($17).
I like James' pastas a lot.
Too often ravioli contain an indistinct, mushy filling. And if those ravioli contain meat, you can hardly taste it, because it is blended together with pureed vegetables and cheese.
Luckily, James’ ravioli stands apart:
In the Duck and Foie Gras Ravioli, you could really feel and taste the duck, and even the foie gras. Same thing with the Pig Cheek ravioli. These portions are not huge, but they are satisfying. The accompaniments, like the caramelized Cipollini Onions and the Cipollini puree (which looks like a sauce) were quite delicious. The Tagliatelle with the Braised Rabbit: ooh-la-laa, fuhgeddaboutit: what musty, full, great flavors (umami again, ha!). Perfectly al dente, delicious tagliatelle.
-Seared Salmon with Leek Stew, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Aromatic Sauce ($21).
My husband loves this dish. He has had it many times. So far it has been perfectly cooked to the requested doneness (medium), except for one time, when it was medium rare.
- Grilled New York Strip with Creamed Spinach, Shallot Rings and Red Wine Mustard Jus ($26).
I have enjoyed this dish 3 times: I order it medium-rare. The steak is served sliced thinly, the slices laid over the creamed spinach. The shallot rings are placed on top of the steak slices. Sometimes the smaller (end) slices are closer to medium, but they are tasty as well. It is a delicious dish and is quite satisfying on its own, but if you want an additional side to go with it, the herbed fries are very good. We share them.
When I order the fries, I ask for them well done and that is how they I get them.
Fresh, delightful pea flavors in this nice risotto that does not feel too heavy. During one visit, two of our guests shared this and the salmon dish, a solution they were both pleased with. Best of both worlds...
-Pressed Young Chicken with Napa Cabbage and Morels ($22)
I rarely order chicken in a restaurant, but since I want to eat trough James' menu, I decided to try. Especially since I noticed that there were morels in the dish. I liked it so much that I ordered it during my next visit, too. This chicken was moist & succulent, very flavorful. The rub on the crispy skin was excellent. I kept thinking that it tasted "more" than a chicken. I also thought the Napa cabbage and the morels were perfect with this dish.
I am repeating myself: James' fresh, home made pasta is excellent: flavorful and cooked perfectly. This dish, with the lamb and olives was quite good; savory & very satisfying. I actually thought of taking half of the portion home, but wound up eating the whole thing, since I just could not stop.
- Mahi Mahi w. Squid, Bok choy, Red pepper Curry Sauce (broth, actually) ($17). Nightly special.
"World class cooking", exclaimed the happy vege-lacto - pescaterian between bites. The thick (but not too large) piece of mahi mahi was very tender and moist, as was the accompanying squid. The red pepper curry broth gave the fresh dish a nice bite.
-Salmon Cake with Frisée Salad and Lemon Caper Remoulade ($14)
The salmon cakes are delicious. We have had them several times. My only criticism is of the too small portion of greens (frisée salad) that comes with the dish. Just a few more greens around the salmon cakes would make this dish perfect.
-Crepes with Parmacotto, Manchego, Sweet Marjoram Béchamel ($10)
How can something seemingly so simple and basic be so delicious? My guess: Fresh, quality ingredients, fresh preparation and a talented chef who knows what he is doing. Maybe you can add: the right kind of pride (love) in your trade.
-Artisanal Cheese Plate with Chaichou, Aged Gruyere, Stilton ($12)
- Malpeque Oysters,Bloody-Mary Sauce ($15)
Delicious. Image at the bottom of page, far left.
- Farm Eggs, Duck Sausage, Fingerlings ($9)
- Pulled Smoked Pork with Cheddar Scones ($12)
The wine list is meager, but we credit the attempt at creating a meaningful range. We understand the problems caused by space limitations and storage issues. That said, the wines on the list are food friendly (if sometimes a bit on the young side) and quite reasonably priced. If wine is not your thing, James serves some pretty mean beers, and the bartender can perform miracles inside a martini glass.
-Creme Brulee with Lemongrass Infusion ($9)
-Lavender Creme Brulee with Marinated Berry Salad ($8)
-Chocolate Ganache Cake with Hazelnut Center and Brandy Ice Cream ($10)
-Creamy Banana Crepes with Dulce de Leche ($9)
We are not into desserts, but have to admit that some of James' desserts are absolutely delicious. These all mouthwatering, but the crème brûlées have been our favorites. In our opinion some of the best crème brûlées in town.
White brioche-type slices, slightly sweet. The only choice. Served with butter. If you sip red wine while nibbling on the bread, the tastes really do not complement each other.
©RC GELBER ww.MyBestNewYorkNY.com
The room, including the diners at the bar,is very busy and the staff is handling it all quite admirably. The service has been super friendly, efficient & attentive to patrons' needs and quirks - especially by the long time staff members, who are just wonderful. Except for a few glitches service flows very well.
James' policy of taking reservations only for groups of 6 or more is quite inconvenient for hungry patrons; the wait can at times be quite long.
What makes matters worse, James favors groups of four or more over couples. Even when there are "four"-tops available (consisting of 2 deuces), the staff will not split them into two deuces, instead making couples wait, sometimes endlessly - and then seats groups of four that arrive much later than the couple has. The staff will only split the "four"-top if another couple happens to arrive before a group of four does.
The seating policy was more fair during the first few years.
The change might be a choice the restaurant has done because of economic calculations, but it definitely does not make us want to order the expensive bottle of wine we had had in mind, so in these instances we have chosen a cheaper wine instead.
The tables (with two hard chairs) that are designated for couples are located in the middle of the room, next to the bar, where, when it gets crowded, you get to endure being pushed by bar patrons' bags and coats, passing people, etc.
Despite this, James seems more popular than ever, because this winter (2009- 2010) we have only been able to get a table a couple of times (with less than 45 minutes to as much as 1.5 hours of waiting time). Some months, not once. We grew tired of not being able to plan our night if we wanted to dine at James. We all but stopped trying and came by rarely in 2011.
2012 Summer dinners:
Still going strong, happily so.
We have visited James quite a few times this summer and have loved every visit.
The feeling is very welcoming; the whole staff very friendly and the atmosphere is almost like re-energized.
Since we love fish so much and since Mr Calvert and his team really seem to know how to prepare fish, we have ordered mostly fish dishes (both specials and menu dishes) for main course this summer. The food is so good, we keep coming back.
In addition to the delicious fish for main course, we have to have James' delicious spinach salad (one of our favorite salads anywhere) / and some of their super fresh and tasty oysters.