Every now and then I go back through restaurant reviews written 10 or 12 years ago. It often brings more tears than cheers, remembering the bright hopes and confident ambitions that turned on a shiny new kitchen, then the dark night when the door was locked for the last time. Starting a restaurant is no easy matter.
Today, though, let me tell you one of the happy memories, a success I wouldn't have bet on when it opened 15 years ago: HJ's Prime Cut. When HJ's opened on New Towne Square Drive, just off Telegraph Road, it was almost invisible from both streets, one building on the edge of a vast development.
In those early days, HJ's restaurant business - apart from a few catering parties - seemed less than thriving, despite good food and a relaxed atmosphere.
Now, HJ's gives every evidence of prospering. It's busy noon and night - reservations are advisable most evenings - but the most obvious change is a new location. The attractive building has a parking lot that can be entered not only from New Towne Square Drive, but also from both Detroit Avenue and Alexis Road. Where the restaurant used to be, 206 New Towne Square Dr., still carries the HJ's name, for it is HJ's banquet hall.
A room divider of blond wood, about five feet high, separates a sedate bar with small tables from the traffic pattern between the hostess station and the dining rooms, one large but not oppressively so and two smaller ones, glass enclosed and quiet.
The dinner menu is almost formidable: 15 appetizers, for example, priced between $3.95 and $7.50 (although a new menu is being prepared, and the prices, like the items, may vary somewhat). Mushroom caps stuffed with such goodies as cheese, shrimp, and lobster are apparently popular. They're even advertised outside on HJ's curbside sign.
The “famous prime rib” gets special attention on the menu, boxed at the head of the entrees, and diners have a choice of four portions, from a petite cut for $12.95 to a “monster cut” for a whopping $22.95. Suggestions of combinations include barbecued rib, shrimp, perch, and scallops.
Following all the attention showered on the prime rib, a list of eight steaks does seem like an overload, and so I moved on to the pork and veal section. The server made a pitch for veal marsala among the day's specials, but that couldn't sway me from my menu choice of veal parmesan.
It was tasty and blanketed with both parmesan and mozzarella, as advertised. However, the menu quite properly said a marinara sauce would lend its distinctive perky spice between veal and cheese. I'm not sure whether what was slathered on was entitled to be called a marinara; it seemed very tired. The veal cutlets, I must add, were good choices, nicely flavored and tender.
Having unwisely filled up on some good, soft white bread as I contemplated the menu over a glass of agreeable wine, I was unable to find interior room for the entire veal parmesan, and I left some unremarkable steak fries.
Lunch, seemingly designed with business folk and their office staffs in mind, follows a more restrained menu: Besides a handful of luncheon entrees priced up to $9, there are 9 appetizers, not 15, 11 salads (the spinach salad with crumbled cheese and a great sweet-sour french dressing is the best anywhere!), and 26 sandwiches.
Some of the sandwiches, like my tuna salad, are made on quasi-croissants, croissant-looking on top, a slice of a soft white bread on the bottom. The pastry is not crisp, and efforts to slice bites with the serrated knife that come with the sandwich are difficult. And I wished my tuna salad had undergone a more piquant seasoning.
These qualifications are no more than well-meaning observations; HJ's is an asset to the eating-out public, a success story.