At first blush, J. Paul’z embodies the pre-financial crisis exuberance that brought all sorts of over-wrought concepts to suburban sprawl commercial centers. Take the name, for instance: J. Paul’z with a z. Named for the original owners, the plural “z” feels like a transparent, cheesy attempt at instant familiarity, bold and laid-back at the same time.
Indeed there’s a lot going on with J. Paul’z, from its stylized Moroccan-tea-house-meets-sports-bar vibe to the ambitious scope of its pan-world menu complete with sushi, tapas, and large plates. To get a better handle on the place, I went online to see what the City Paper had said about J. Paul’z when it opened. Fellow critic Jeff Allen reviewed it for the first time in April 2006, and it’s clear that the feel of the place hasn’t changed much since:
“The interior decor is a profusion of plush cushions, glowing votives, dark wood, and glittering fixtures; combined with large potted plants and glazed ceramics, the space feels very ‘suburban chic’ — like Pier One exploded inside a Miyabi Steakhouse.”
He went on to say that J.Paul’z probably wouldn’t win an award for originality or “impeccable flavor,” but that it pretty much accomplished what it set out to do — satisfy a hungry bar crowd with “ample plates of unchallenging food.” Fair enough, and at risk of being anti-climactic, I’d say that Allen’s review back then pretty much sums up J. Paul’z today, five years on.
Since then, J. Paul’z has had three chefs: Daniel Caruso, followed by Tracy Little, and the newly installed Val Domingo. I can’t say exactly how the menu has evolved or what changes Domingo has in store, but these days the menu includes everything but the kitchen sink — and few originals. Most of the tapas are small versions of things you’ve seen many times before: egg rolls, hummus, French onion soup, truffled mac and cheese, wasabi-crusted tuna, chicken satay, another tuna dish, mussels, beer-battered shrimp. Among them, the red hummus dip ($9) fortified with roasted red peppers was just OK. I missed the meaty, earthy chickpeas and tart lemon juice found in traditional hummus, but the red pepper was interesting.
The trio of sliders ($11) was ho-hum: three good-sized small burgers with pretty tasty buns, one with pimento cheese, one with blue cheese and caramelized onions, and one with bacon and cheddar and little else to adorn or garnish them. They were a bit dry, and the beef was not nearly as juicy as I would have liked. The fries were fairly limp and scattered with a spice mixture; overall it’s unremarkable. The panko-fried mozzarella with marinara was probably just a little bit better than the typical chain restaurant version, if that means anything to you.
The sushi menu is replete with rolls — about 25 — many fried, crunchy, and filled with cream cheese, along with nigiri, sashimi, and maki. The California roll ($8) and spicy tuna roll ($8) were plentiful, decent takes on those classics, if a little heavy on the rice. For a bar like this, and dare I say for Charleston, the sushi at J. Paul’z is passable. By far the best dish I had was one of the eight or so mains from the “from the land and sea” section of the menu. The smoked brisket ($18) was downright respectable; deeply smoky in flavor, the beef was tender enough to fall apart but with a nice texture, served alongside some as-good-as-you’d-expect sautéed garlicky spinach and a huge fried grit cake, which was cheesy and indulgent.
To Chef Domingo’s credit, he’s a brave man to try to improve upon the cooking in a place so defined by its bar scene and over-stylized suburban aesthetic. That said, I’d be more likely to head back to J. Paul’z for the food if the menu were pared down to a few simple dishes — maybe in either the Spanish or the Asian realm. Think Gordon Ramsay’s culling method in Kitchen Nightmares. Still, for all I know J. Paul’z has a great business model going, legions of fans, and fat, happy owners. It does bring a lot of variety to the table, and maybe that suits the bar crowd just fine.