MJ’s gives contemporary take on the classics

by Brian Clarey

The wedge salad, a tried-and-true steakhouse  staple, is graced with haricot verts and drunken raisins. (photo by Jill Clarey)

The patio at MJ’s Steak and Seafood offers a tranquil respite from the heat and bustle of the outside world, with stylized faux palmettoes and Christmas lights and wisteria creeping along wooden supports. It goes well with white wine this time of year — a 2009 Valckenberg Gewurztraminer, perhaps, which manages to be both sweet and dry, both elegant and accessible, just like this restaurant.

“We just call it ‘Steak and Seafood,’” says Chef Tad Engstrom, who manned the line here when it was Sweet Basil’s and worked to buy the restaurant for himself. “People can understand that.”

The M and J in the restaurant’s name, by the way, come from daughters Madelyn and Julianna. His wife Mindy works the catering side of the business.

The site is still a quaint cottage in the northwest quadrant of town, its rooms filled with two- and four-top tables, the ambience still elegant and understated. But the menu, always excellent in this spot going back to the Café D’Arte days, is smaller now, relying on a few classic elements with contemporary twists.

Take the wedge salad, a staple in steakhouses for a hundred years.

But to the wedge of iceberg, bleu cheese and bacon, Engstrom has added pickled haricot vert and drunken raisins. A fish appetizer has both sushi-grade tuna and smoked salmon, graced with orange soy sauce and bonito flakes, which are basically flakes of smoked, dried fish. Both were excellent, and other starters like the Philly steak tartinae, the mussels with leeks and the mango chicken salad look promising.

Entrées rely almost exclusively on steaks, chops and seafood, and a single vegetarian dish that, with black trumpet mushrooms and beerbattered asparagus, looks amazing. I tried the bone-in pork chop, an excellent cut of meat cooked to perfection, and the Angus sirloin, which was a little tough as sirloin can be, but dredged through an incredible mushroom espanola sauce it was one of the more memorable steak dinners I’ve had in a while.

Engstrom’s sauces and dressings are fabulous. The wedge’s bleu cheese dressing was as outstanding an example of the form as I’ve ever tasted. And my wife’s seared scallops came graced with a cashew sauce that is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. Honestly. I could probably drink a whole mug of it.

Other entrées are enticing: a NY strip, grilled mahi-mahi, lamb Bolognese and a bone-in veal chop. This is not molecular gastronomy, more a collection of tried-and-true ingredients prepared in artful fashion. And Engstrom doesn’t skimp on ingredients.

Bread comes from Chicago’s Maple Leaf Bakers. “It’s the only one he liked,” our server told us. Desserts come from the Queen City Bakery in Charlotte. The coffee is from Fortuna, roasted right here in Greensboro.

The coffee is served French-press style, and even the decaf has a pleasant pungency. Taken in small sips between bites of flourless chocolate cake is as fine a way to wrap up a meal as any.

Engstrom, who has haunted the kitchens of 223 South Elm and, briefly, Wolfgang Puck’s LA bastion Spago, has found a home in this cottage in the northwest corner of town. And because the menu changes so frequently, I hope to stop by often.

wanna go?

MJ’s Steak and Seafood 620 Dolley Madison Road Greensboro