Starry Nights

Enjoy the jeweled skyline while feasting on the Latin American flavors at J Bar.

As the heat begins to return in earnest, my mind turns to thoughts of warm summer evenings, starry night skies, warm gentle breezes and the hope of a far-off monsoon. Although we are probably months from any sort of storms, it's never too early to begin to dine out in the night.

One of my favorite spots to dine is the patio at J Bar. The earthy rowdier cousin to the more sedate and well-heeled Janos, J Bar has always been a favorite for the sheer joy it brings to its celebration of Latin American ingredients. Under the sure and guided touch of Janos Wilder, J Bar has wide appeal, fine enough for a special occasion yet casual enough for simpler events. Whatever your reason for going, you won't be disappointed.

It's hard to pinpoint what exactly creates J Bar's allure. Perhaps it's the festive dining room or the upbeat, sparky menu. Surely the well-informed and friendly staff contributes a good deal. These are all good reasons to draw diners from near and far. But the secret ingredient that adds an irresistible magic is the patio, a hacienda-style patio that protects from the elements yet still holds you up into the night sky--a bejeweled view of the city tossed at your feet.

The most difficult part about decision-making at J Bar has to do with which part of the menu you want to spend the most time with. The antojitos (little bites) offer up vibrant smaller plates. The platillos, larger platters, are geared toward family-style dining. In the face of so many choices, we opted to deny ourselves no pleasure and proceeded with abandon. We recommend you do the same.

A particularly delightful "little bite" is the gingered citrus, rock shrimp and mango ceviche. Served in a splashy fashion, a silver arc with a slender flute, the ceviche honors a range of concentrated flavors: marinated rock shrimp luxuriate in shimmering citrus flavors, with a kiss of mango and a delicate hint of mint. Seedless jalapeño rings add the slightest breath of heat that is quenched by a fruity finish.

The hongos and calabacitas chilaquiles with poblano crema is a winner. Smoky flavors of poblano crema swaddle layers of warm tortillas layered with slender slices of rich mushroom and baby squash sautéed until meltingly tender. Earthy and rich, smoky and slightly spicy, this is comfort food at its best, chilaquiles served up lasagna style.

The Bolivian beef salad is an unusual addition to the menu. A bed of posole is topped with pickled onions and shreds of carne seca. On this evening the posole was a little undercooked and chewy. The beef, resembling jerky matchsticks, introduced smoky flavors that worked with wedges of purple potato, but seemed like a bristling combination of textures. Hard-boiled egg and tomato wedges added both color and sweeter notes to the plate, but didn't really unify the plate. A stark study in flavors, this dish carries an air of authenticity. It is a departure from some of the easier going items on the menu.

Like, for example, the calamari. This is one of those small plates of ethereal flavors that signal you have been in the presence of greatness. The calamari, marinated in ginger ale then flash fried, is drizzled with a ginger barbecue sauce. Tossed on a bed of watercress dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette, and punctuated with heavenly roasted sweet potato, this is a plate to savor.

Surely, you'll want to linger with the antojitos as well, but how can you resist the lovely platillos? Every plate we tried was superlative, and the fun of sharing all the flavors on platillos is that it results in lovely conversation, some enforced intimacy, and a glimpse into your dining companions' higher nature. Be seduced.

Don't miss the cornhusk-grilled salmon with heirloom posole and salsa fresca. A succulent salmon filet grilled in a cornhusk is suffused with a light and smoky corn essence. Bathed in a light aromatic Aji Amarillo butter and served on a bed of heirloom posole, this was a light summery dish that showcased the best flavors that comes from the marriage of corn and salmon.

The Original Jerked Pork proved to be a real winner. We weren't sure what was implied by the original, but if this is the original version of a dish we can see why it would want to lay the claim to fame. The platter features a generous serving of pulled, tender pork bursting with peppery sweet flavors. Topped with a stunning cranberry habañero chutney, a brilliant combination of bright fiery flavors, this is a heavenly marriage. A cooling creamy slaw, spiked with lime and cilantro, and a side of chorizo black beans turn this into a filling, festive plate that would go with any circumstance. Actually, I would happily invent a variety of circumstances just to sit with this platter again.

If any vegetarians are traveling in your midst, you won't go wrong with the J Bar Vegetarian Combination #1. This platter pays homage to the simple sweet flavors found in vegetables. A bright red pepper relleno is both simple and satisfying, stuffed with roasted corn and queso blanco. A mixiote, a tumble of roasted root vegetables wrapped in a husk, was delicate and sweet, jazzed up a bit with caramelized onions and ancho chile. We were so smitten with the chilaquiles from the appetizers that we were thrilled to see them showcased on this plate again.

Likewise, the J Bar Combination Plate #8 provided a wild walk on the meatier side of life. Tender slices of a chipotle-rubbed flank steak crowned with mushroom escabeche brought forth moans of appreciation at the table. Another serving of the jerked pork with cranberry habañero brought forth cheers and the achiote shrimp taco provided just the right tangy punch to finish the plate.

Throughout the entire meal, the servers attending to the table charmed us. The wait staff at Janos are some of the best-trained in the city. This reflects a properly run restaurant, where the wait staff are educated not only about the ingredients and preparation of the dishes they serve, but how to be gracious in imparting the knowledge as well. Knowledgeable, gracious, and proud of the place where they work, they offer service that is always a pleasure.

Wanting to stay and savor the evening was in order. Naturally, this included dessert. The postres at J Bar are worthy of homage bordering on religious fervor. In particular the Oaxacan bread pudding is impressive. A warm, creamy bread pudding is served in a pool of a dark and handsome alamondrado sauce. An accompanying scoop of ancho ripple ice cream (vanilla with the faintest kiss of chile) provides a lovely study in comforting flavors. Cajeta sundae with kahlua ice cream is seductive in its simplicity. Lightly flavored kahlua ice cream topped with cajeta (a sweet caramel sauce with the subtle undertones of goat's milk) is a warm twist on a classic. The real standout however, is the pyramid of dark and minted white chocolate mousse. Whimsical in its composition, a chocolate Mexican pyramid collides with a cookie moon. The pyramid, coated in a chocolate ganache tender to the fork, is stuffed on the inside with an explosively minty white chocolate mousse. Tiny bites are all one needs, and help the plate last much longer than it should.

Should you find yourself in the need of a little romance or some gastronomic magical realism, head on up to the Foothills. Don't be surprised if you find yourself dreamily afloat in the starry night sky.

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