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Staking Out Meaty Cuisine at JW's

Anaheim eatery lost its classic chef, but it remains one of the best places in north O.C. to get a steak.

September 18, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — Maybe you remember a restaurant at the Anaheim Marriott named JW's, where chef John McLaughlin prepared a classic '80s mix of continental and nouvelle cuisine. McLaughlin left for the Summit House in Fullerton, and JW's has metamorphosed into a classic '90s steakhouse, meaning meat and potatoes with a series of elegant upscale twists.

Prices are considerably lower at JW's Steakhouse than at the old JW's, partly to conform with the gradual scaling back of corporate expense accounts in this decade. The restaurant still caters mostly to professionals and business travelers, but the fact remains that this is one of the few places to get a good steak in northern Orange County. When word gets out, I doubt you will see as many empty tables as you do now.

The fancy crockery, plush tapestry chairs and formal hotel school style of service are a tip-off that this JW's Steakhouse is nowhere near as casual as its name suggests. I playfully made a reservation under the name of Max, and the waiter solicitously referred to me as "Mr. Max" throughout the meal.

The dining area is a labyrinth of little rooms, and the current decor motif falls somewhere between a hunting lodge and a country inn. Gone are the lace tablecloths and other frilly decorations of the old JW's. Now there are such masculine appointments as brass railings and beveled glass, and the walls are adorned with stuffed animal heads.

Before you even have a chance to get started, you will get a basket of hot breads and a dish of unctuous, moss-colored pesto, quite a delicious combination.

Our waiter was enthusiastic about JW's steakhouse salad, so "Mr. Max" was quick to give it a test. It turned out to be a wonderful salad of mixed lettuces and ripe tomato with a mild, creamy peppercorn dressing and an appealing flurry of crisp onion straws on top. I can't say as much for the Caesar salad, a quarter head of roughly cut romaine in an insipid dressing.

*

The best appetizer, hands down, is crab cake with black bean sauce. It's a flaky, meaty disc of crab scented with Old Bay seasoning; the piquant, cumin-scented black beans are a side, not a sauce. Smoked salmon is four rolled-up filets of a very salty, smoky salmon arranged around a mound of julienned carrots and onions. And chilled Contessa shrimp, though it uses impressively large shrimp, is otherwise a very ordinary shrimp cocktail without much flavor.

The steaks, however, do not disappoint. With the exception of the 10-ounce filet mignon, they're huge, at least 14 ounces apiece. And they are all nicely tender and perfectly prepared to your precise specifications. One of the advantages of dining at a big hotel restaurant is that these places tend to be service-oriented. If you don't like the way a piece of meat is cooked here, just wriggle your nose and it'll be whisked away and replaced with something more to your liking.

The best choice is the rib eye steak, 14 ounces of firm, juicy choice beef, thoroughly trimmed around the edges. The filet mignon is smaller, but it comes in a thick, baseball-style cut that gives this meltingly tender steak the illusion of being bigger than it really is. If you feel up to it, you can take on the porterhouse, a trencherman-sized 22 ounces of good eating. There's also prime rib, and the marquis cut (16 ounces) is an excellent value at $16.95.

The meat choices are not limited to beef. Sumptuous double lamb chops are a flavorful option, and the center-cut pork chops, a full 16 ounces, are thick and tender.

Seafoods don't seem to be as carefully done. Seared salmon, one of two spa items on the menu, looks appealing at a low 371 calories and 11 grams of fat, ideal for the spa diner. But the fish is not what I'd call seared--namely seared around the edges--but mostly medium rare; "broiled to a frazzle" is how I'd describe it. And grilled garlic shrimp--four big ones served on a tomato-lime-cilantro relish--don't taste like much of anything, particularly garlic.

Everything is served a la carte, so you'll want to perk up the table with a few side dishes. JW's hashed brown garlic potatoes is a baked casserole with a beautiful top crust of potatoes fused with Parmesan and green onions, but once you get through the crust, you find undercooked shredded potatoes. The sauteed mushroom caps could use more butter and less lemon juice. But the chefs score big with green asparagus: nearly a dozen spears, deep green, exquisitely tender and not a bit mushy, and only $1.75.

For dessert, you can have an eggy raisin bread pudding cake flavored with bourbon (Maker's Mark, to be precise) or fresh strawberries in a pond of vanilla cream laced with Godiva chocolate liqueur.

JW's Steakhouse may lack the moments of brilliance its predecessor once provided. But it's a solidly dependable place for steak, and that's about all one can expect in the very shadow of the Anaheim Convention Center.

JW's Steakhouse is expensive. Appetizers are $4.95 to $7.95. Salads are $3.50 to $4.25. Entrees are $14.95 to $29.95. Desserts are $2.95 to $4.50.

BE THERE

* JW's Steakhouse, Anaheim Marriott Hotel, 700 W. Convention Way, Anaheim. (714) 750-8000. Dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. All major cards.

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