At MJ’s, you get the feeling like you’re in for a treat and when the food comes out you realize you were right. You really can’t go wrong with your meal choice here and the atmosphere is warm and intimate. A jewel in Northern Bradenton that is not to be missed!
Michael John’s (MJ’s) Restaurant, Bradenton, FL
1040 Carlton Arms Boulevard Bradenton, FL 34208, (941) 747-8032
Cuisine: Seafood, Steakhouse, French/European
Price Rating: $15-$25 per entree
Review Date: June 23, 2012 and June 30, 2012
This review is part of a series of restaurant reviews that follows The Watering Mouth’s new restaurant review guidelines.
Background Info on the Review
Michael John’s Restaurant in Bradenton, Florida is a small brasserie located in a building just off of 64 in the entrance to the Carlton Arms apartment complex. I’ve known about this restaurant for quite some time and have actually eaten there before. When Tamas and I went there for the first time, we had a very special, romantic meal and haven’t been back probably just because it’s a bit far from where we live.
I got to speak with Michael (or MJ to some) for a while when I was setting up this review and the overall impression I get of his restaurant culture is one of deep respect for each other. They all seem to work very well together and in a great team environment, which is something that MJ really strives to create. An atmosphere where the employees end up working there for a long time and love it. While we were chatting, we bonded over a mutual love for the Dave Matthews Band and hey, anybody that’s a major fan of Dave is alright in my book.
MJ’s Restaurant is characterized as a “brasserie”, which is a type of eatery typically found in France and other nearby countries. The basic idea is a cross between a steakhouse and a bar and usually serves this type of heavier food with an emphasis on simplistic, hearty cuisine. I ate at a few of these when I lived in France, and I love the atmosphere in these types of places. MJ’s is a great representation of this concept. It is the kind of place that brings out a steak knife in an almost ceremonious manner and has a ritual crumb scraping moment at the end of the meal right before dessert, which just adds a special touch. The clientele here is varied and affluent. We arrived at around 6:00 pm and by 6:45 pm the main dining room was full.
I think the last time I’d gone to this restaurant, I ordered a burger and while this was a great choice, I was about to be blown away by the offerings I was presented with during my tasting. Question is, are you ready?
Cheri’s Food Review
I was lucky enough to be able to share this night with Tamas and it became a sort of date night for us. It was a very rainy night – the beginnings of those Florida summer storms that you get every single afternoon and can practically set your watch by. It served to create a warm, cozy-type atmosphere as we sat in the main room in front of a large bay window. We alternated between servers, one of whom was the manager, and another gentleman who was very nice, but very quiet as well. We started off with a glass of house red Shiraz for Tamas and I had the house Pinot Grigio. We both liked our wines very much, and they were to our liking – not too dry, but not too sweet either.
Michael had created a particular Special Menu just for the Tasting and it consisted of 7 items meant to showcase the variety and quality of the offerings here. I will detail each separately below.
They bring you out a basket of bread with butter to start with, which was warm and soft and the perfect light start to the meal. Michael also prepares a particular “amuse-bouche” at the start of your meal, which is just a tiny appetizer that you didn’t have to order — it is just given to you for free and is meant to showcase the chef’s talent before you even get started. This evening, we were served a tiny cup of Chickpea Potato Bisque, which was like a creamy potato soup with tiny flecks of potato giving it a great texture, but also a great spicy kick. It was a tiny little mouthful that really got your palette ready to go in anticipation of the tastes to come.
My absolute favorite food that I tasted during the night came right smack dab at the beginning of the meal was our first appetizer of Baked French Escargots in garlic butter sauce served with parmesan and toast ($9). There were a couple of things during this meal that might make the average restaurant-goer a bit squeamish including this, but lucky for me I have had the opportunity to try escargots (French for “snails”) in a few restaurants in France before, and they are one of my favorite things to eat. I was also lucky that the first 4 things on my Tasting menu were seafood or too daring for Tamas to eat so I didn’t have to share much. What a perfect date!
I need to take a moment, considering this was my favorite part of the meal and it occurred so early, to just rave about the Escargots for a minute. Now I’ve told you that I’ve had them before – in the exact country that they’re known to come from, and having said that, the Escargots that I had at Michael’s this evening were the absolute best that I’ve ever had. First, I tried one on its own to get the full flavor and mouth-feel. I have to say that I wish that cultural differences and stereotypes didn’t create preferences in people because I feel like, if snails can be this amazing, that everyone should be brave enough to try them. If you don’t try something that is this great just because you’re afraid, then I feel sad for you – because you’re sooo missing out!
These snails, man. First of all, the sauce they’re served incredible – creamy, luscious, buttery consistency with a garlicky kick. When I added a splash of lemon, it lightened the already-delicious sauce into a more dynamic flavor that perfectly complimented the snails. Basically, anyone who has preconceived notions about what these would feel like in your mouth, well, you’re wrong. You have to first imagine the most divine texture that any food could ever have, multiply that by 10 and then you’ll get a concept of what these are like. And then of course, altogether with the sauce, the lemon and spread on a wedge of toast and you are in French delicacy heaven, done just right. Okay, enough snail worship. Onto the rest of our evening.
The first appetizer I was served, which Tamas wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole (I should know, I brought one along) was the Maryland Crab Cake with Spicy Red Chili Aïoli and Micro Salad ($10). The crab cake was cooked to perfection and very tasty. It was coated with a crisp breadcrumb covering – the perfect touch to the soft crabmeat below and the spicy aïoli gives a sharp kick that is matched well with freshly squeezed lemon over top. Only negative is that I happen to be not the greatest fan of crab cakes, merely because I find they are a bit too decadent or heavy for my tastes; I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. But if you are a fan of crab cakes, you will be very satisfied with this choice.
The next appetizer was the most daring thing on the menu, and if you’ve never had it before, please see my advice on being open-minded about food in the Escargots paragraph above. Ha. This was the Roasted Veal Bone Marrow ($8). I have never had the opportunity to try bone marrow before, but have heard really great things about it. This reminded me a bit of the time I tried crab legs before, when you first get the idea in your head of what it is you’re actually eating, it can be a bit off-putting.
Certainly digging some matter out of the middle of a bone to slather on toast seems a bit strange at first, that is, until you taste it. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for at first. Tamas was hungry enough at this point to take part in the truffle pate that was served on top of the bones and we both really liked that. It was salty and creamy and a really nice, rich treat. And once I’d located the bone marrow, which was a jelly-like substance found at the very bottom of the bone after it’d cooked down, I suddenly knew what everyone raves about. It is certainly a different texture, but a very pleasant one. Words that come to mind are billowy, gelatinous, succulent, unctuous – like eating a cloud of rich, soft goodness, piled onto a piece of toast. Certainly decadent, this appetizer is not to be missed.
Yes, it did strike me as funny that two of the “appetizers” I was served were snails and bone marrow – certainly not your run of the mill starters. But oh so intoxicatingly delicious. I would have been happy making these two dishes my meal.
First was the Hawaiian Ahi Tuna ($24), one of my favorite things to eat. This one was beautifully rare inside – bright pink and tempting. The fish was just as you’d want – soft, creamy texture with a complex, peppery, bold sesame crust on the outside. It was served with an Asian slaw, house vegetables and a soy-ginger vinaigrette. The slaw is fresh and spicy and finds a way to greet your tongue in a very unsuspecting way, but leaves it burning with heat. It was actually a bit too spicy and complex for my tastes – it wasn’t my favorite flavor combination, but if you love these flavors, you’ll find that it was done just right, if a bit spicy. But don’t fear, there is bread nearby to help tame the fire. Ha!
The other entree that we were served was called the Filet Pinot ($27). This is an 8 oz dry-aged, dijon and bleu cheese crusted filet mignon served with a raspberry-pinot noir reduction. One bite of this steak and you’ll wish the taste lasted forever. Tamas is a huge steak lover and he literally said that this was the best steak he has ever had. (That’s 2 “Best Ever”s in one meal!) It had the tenderness of a regular great filet mignon with the robust flavor of a dry-aged meat. We were both huge fans of the steak; I would easily order this as my entree next time. The bleu cheese on top was not my absolute favorite flavor, but if you like bleu cheese, it really works well on top of the steak.
My absolute favorite part was the depth of flavor that the sweet raspberry-pinot noir reduction brought to the steak. Poor me, I just had to take the leftovers of this dish home but made sure to specifically ask for some of the sauce on the side! Thank heavens they happily obliged. The potato accompaniment was like a scalloped, Parmesan-covered delight, soft and the perfect balancing side dish to a steak like this. The green beans, carrots and broccoli was a light, fresh vegetable side that made you feel almost as if you were balancing the decadence with something sensible. Though not really. This entree came as a close second to the lovely Escargots.
If there was anything that missed this night, I would have to say it was the Crème Brûlée. I found the texture to be a strange consistency, a bit drier maybe than what I’ve had before. It wasn’t my favorite. Tamas says it reminded him of the pudding they eat back home in Hungary and said that he liked it, but it definitely was unlike the softer, creamier crème brûlée he had known from the past. But not to worry, the other dessert more than made up for this.
I was relieved and proud of myself to have saved just enough room to finish off the last dessert – it was incredible. The Ice Cream Cinnamon Muffin Sandwich really hit the spot for me. Cinnamon crunch muffin fried in house chocolate Cokao butter with a vanilla ice cream center. You know, when you eat a big meal at a restaurant, there are a bunch of cracks left in your belly that must be filled in, so dessert, especially if it’s a creamy, melty one, will do just the trick. You can just imagine how relieved I was to see a huge pile of soft, bread-like muffin with a big mound of creamy, melting vanilla ice cream on top. No, this was not a light dessert by any means, but I knew it would help get rid of those pesky dinner spaces left in my belly. There is a sweet glaze over top and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. I was told that this was an off-the-cuff musing from the creative mind of Michael and I was impressed to say the least. How could you NOT be satisfied after a dessert like this one?
Cloaked Restaurant Review
This is the part where I have an anonymous review done to critique the entire restaurant experience in a undercover way so that you can get a good idea of what it’s like for the typical restaurant-goer like yourself! It keeps us all honest!! Here’s what they said:
MJs is a hidden gem on the East 64 corridor. Tucked in front of the Carlton Arms apartments, it used to be a pretty good pizza joint until MJs replaced it, and the change has certainly been for the better. The exterior has seen gradual improvement over the years, and now sports a small trellis-and-fence at the entryway. The door was opened for us as soon as we approached, and the the interior is an intimate blend of dark furniture and pristine tablecloths. The servers and greeters, always in all-black, are respectful, if a tad on the timid, awkward side.
MJ’s menu, which is constantly updated on a daily basis with a variety of specials and extras, blurs the line between pub food and gourmet steakhouse. Although Pot Stickers and Onion Rings were available among the wide selection of appetizers, we opted for the Honey Baked Brie ($8) and the Shrimp and Crab Gratin ($8). Both were excellent, both in flavor and presentation. The crust of the Gratin was crisp without being burned, and a sprinkle of lemon across it made the entire dish really stand out as a sophisticated seafood appetizer that could’ve easily passed as an entree.
The Brie was just as good – melted throughout (which can be a challenge in some places) and paired well with dusted pecans and toast. The honey kept it from being too heavy before dinner. Of the three draft beers they had, two were actually empty, which wasn’t a huge deal to us, but was still a little unexpected and might be a negative to some patrons.
The dinners themselves were presented very well, from the striking zig-zag of honey-champagne mustard sauce across the Chicken Cordon Bleu ($22) to the clean arrangement of shrimp on the Beignet of Gulf Shrimp with Sweet Chili Vinaigrette ($22). The chicken, wrapped around Black Forest Ham, Swiss and Proscuitto, was crisp on the outside and tender inside, just as the dish should be. The ingredients worked very well, and it was a good up-scale offering of a familiar meal. The Parmesan Potato Gratin that was served alongside was an excellent pairing, and was yet another upscale take on something that could have been bland and traditional. The Asian-inspired Beignet was great, with a Vinaigrette that made it stand out from a simple Chinese-takeout dish to something that didn’t make you break out in a sweat from the chili or tire of the sweetness of the sauce. The shrimp was well-cooked, and the fried coating was crisp, even under the sauce. The sides of mashed potatoes and veggies were a little bland in contrast, but a different side dish may have paired better with it, and it wasn’t enough to underwhelm a well-prepared seafood dish. The Chocolate Lava Cake ($7), as expected, was entirely decadent. The hot chocolate sauce inside spills out at the first forkful, and keeps any sweet tooth completely satisfied the entire way through.
Excellent food, good service, and a menu that tries to re-invent itself every now and then rather than staying with the same-old. One thing we wanted to note is that the bathrooms during our visit were actually quite small and uncomfortably warm, though we didn’t come to the restaurant to spend time in the restrooms. Although we didn’t get them this time around, no review of MJ’s should be done without at least mentioning the burgers. I’ve had their Juicy Lucy burger about a dozen times, and am never disappointed. In the midst of classic prepared steaks and seafood, the burger may seem like an odd, low-brow choice for a distinctive menu, but it is absolutely not to be missed. A massive cheese-stuffed patty topped with a crisp onion ring is a plate of food that your doctor may warn against, but I highly recommend. Like the rest of MJs, it takes a normal, traditional food and brings it forward in flavor and presentation, showing you what it’s really capable of.
Cloaked Review Ratings
|Food Quality & Menu||4.5|
Go to my Flickr account to check out my Michael John’s Restaurant Review images set to see the full set of pics.