Classic upscale dining yields exceptional cuisine and formal service
A library, a crowded lecture, a secret and John’s Restaurant. These are four entities that all require one thing: the ability to whisper.
There are not many restaurants in Boulder where this is the case, as the sizeable population of students yields a slightly noisier standard for eating out. Yet John’s, a quaint and unassuming restaurant on 23rd and Pearl, is one exception.
“The restaurant has been here for 28 years,” said Ashley Maxwell, who has owned the restaurant for the five years with her brother, Corey Buck. “It was converted from a house about 26 years ago. The way the house is set up, we can be completely full and people can still hear.”
Indeed, hearing is not the slightest problem at John’s. And except for a bold sign announcing its name, the restaurant still appears to be nothing but an old fashioned home. Walking closer, however, its identity is confirmed with “We Buy Local” announcements and stickers boasting various awards on the front door.
After passing through the porch, which is cutely adorned with soft lilacs and tables for two, you’ll find yourself in a quiet, dimly lit collection of dining rooms. Your voice will automatically lower itself by several decibels and you may find yourself standing up a little straighter. My guest and I were thankful for our last minute decision to trade sweatshirts for cashmere.
“We try to make the environment really nice, with some great jazz music. It’s perfect for a special occasion or a business meeting, or just getting out with your friends,” Maxwell said.
A young woman in a server’s uniform approached us right away. Upon our request for a table for two, she led us to a table right by front door. When I asked if there was anything available in the main dining rooms she announced that everything was full. It wasn’t until I took a trip to the bathroom a minute later that my skepticism was confirmed; indeed there were several tables open in the front. What had made us unworthy of them?
Bewildered and slightly offended, we opened the menus. Since it was Wednesday, we had the option of selecting the prix fixe menu that John’s will continue to offer every Wednesday throughout the summer. The theme for April is “Napa Valley,” but themes change monthly. For $33, this menu offers three courses (wine pairings are an additional cost) and compared to the regular menu where entrées alone are around $30, this is a deal.
“We thought a lot of people might not want to come here because of the higher prices,” Maxwell said. “We had an overwhelming response to First Bite Boulder (a week of inexpensive prix fixe menus all over town) because of the value people could get by coming here for that. We decided to offer great value to get people to come in and experience us who might not otherwise.”
Soon after we’d been seated where we apparently belonged, a very professional server appeared by our table, and, in keeping with the theme, spoke to us in a subdued tone. He took our drink orders and floated slowly away into the deep of the restaurant.
Slices of delicious bread were accompanied by soft pats of butter and a young busgirl. She delivered them, as well as water refills, with a nervous professionalism that only enhanced the stuffiness. I was beginning to miss the ease and casualness of so many other restaurants in town.
We were brushing breadcrumbs off of the crisp white tablecloth when our first course arrived. In front of me was a tiny serving of Alaskan halibut on top of a pine nut and caper couscous, the first course in the prix fixe dinner. Tiny Nicoise olives and chopped artichoke hearts huddled inside the couscous, and a subtle lemon buerre blanc blanketed the entire dish. The halibut was cooked perfectly and was nicely complemented with a delicate lemon flavor and tangy olives. It was a beautiful dish and it was executed well.
Across the table, my guest was enjoying the Apple Stilton Pecan Salad ($8.50) off of the regular dinner menu. A wonderful blend of sharp Stilton cheese, crunchy pecans, crisp apples and a red wine honey vinaigrette, this is a familiar salad that John’s has managed very well.
“As much as we can we buy local ingredients from within the state,” Maxwell said. “In the summer months we buy from Boulder farms and other times of the year we get produce and meat from other places in Colorado.” Maxwell added that everything, even the bread served pre-meal, is made in-house.
Not long after our first plates were whisked away and new silverware lain down on our table, the busgirl arrived once more, this time with complimentary sweet pea soup. Served in a tiny mug atop three plates, the presentation was just as magnificent as the rich green soup itself.
Next came the second course in the prix fixe dinner: leek risotto with duck. Four slices of juicy duck breast with wonderfully crispy skin leaned against a handful of al dente risotto, perfectly flavored with charred leeks and gorgonzola. While the duck could have been more flavorful in itself, the savory risotto made up for it.
After our table was cleared and another set of silverware lay before us, we waited eagerly for our next course. The food had been tasty, and we imagined it could only get better. Sure enough, it did.
It took a while for our third course to come out, but the wait was worth it. My guest ended up with the third course in the prix fixe meal, which was a Buffalo Ribeye Steak marinated in a garlic sauce with pearl onions and wild mushrooms. Buffalo has a tendency to be drier than other meats due to its lower fat content, but somehow John’s had cooked it to perfection and dryness was nowhere to be found. The garlic sauce was a tad oversalted, but the pearl onions and chunky mushrooms did wonders to enhance the dish as a whole.
On my end of the table lay the Hudson Valley Fois Gras ($15), an appetizer from the dinner menu. Fois Gras is goose liver, and is served in many an upscale restaurant. The variety at John’s was seared and served with fresh honeycomb (a delicious match for the savory fois gras), toasted walnuts and sherry vinegar. The appetizer portion yielded only several bites and left me swooning in my seat. Anyone bold enough to eat goose liver should by all means eat it at John’s.
When our server tempted us with dessert menus, it was difficult to resist the offer. The selections were across the board, and included everything from chocolate to lemon to marinated cherries. After a careful decision process we decided on the Almond Cake and the Cr