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Season's Pleadings 

How a star-quality chef could improve on a menu that's not quite up to the décor.

The menu gives rise to more confusion. Knowing that in 2001 Bennett authored "Very Vegetarian," a collection of 300 vegetarian recipes, I was excited to see what intriguing non-meat entrees the menu would offer. What I found were grilled vegetable skewers with shiitake mushrooms. Really? That's it?

There were some hits on the list of entrees that ranged from $14 for those vegetable skewers to $36 for a filet mignon. The grilled pork tenderloin with balsamic demi-glace came perfectly medium-well, moist and succulently matched with a crisp, oversized raviolo (yes — that's the singular) filled with heavenly melted goat cheese and prosciutto. Equally delightful was the seared free-range chicken breast with pearl onions, mushrooms and Marsala chicken jus. It was easy enough to trade bites of these two since they sported the same sauce.

In fact, the TJ's menu exploits a few key sauces with varying degrees of success. The veggie skewers were effectively accented with a sweet and spicy glaze that showed up again under different billing as the sesame-ginger barbeque on the dark-ale-braised beef short ribs and as the sesame-ginger dipping sauce with the crispy vegetable tempura appetizer. The tempura batter was light and crisp, but the sauce proved overpowering, and the vegetables were the same that were on the skewers and in our side dishes: zucchini, carrots, squash. No mushrooms. No spring onions. Nothing to make this dish authentic, extraordinary or worth the money.

That's the primary disappointment with this menu. Rather than exploring the full depth of Bennett's culinary creativity, TJ's seems to be an exercise in reusing items in various guises. Perhaps that stems from an overemphasis on food costs and price point. That might also explain why the menu leans toward the traditional and safe, a hotel restaurant instead of a destination in its own right.

But there is some hidden gold in the menu, some chances to savor Bennett's passion for the fruits of the earth. The sautéed potato gnocchi with local golden oyster mushrooms blends creamy gnocchi, sweet white corn and the firm flesh of the mushrooms, all subtly married by the essence of truffle. Truly outstanding. This was the execution of Bennett's vegetarian expertise I'd expected. If only there were more.

The highlight of every meal came at the end. TJ's desserts are extraordinary. Pastry Chef Jim Gallo's chocolate mousse truffle comes hidden in a shell of dark chocolate ganache and is paired with crŠme anglaise and crisp golden tuile cookies. It's a dish rich enough to satisfy any chocolate lover's need, but the chocolate-pecan torte offers a remarkable second choice.

TJ's is a lovely setting — in Bennett's words, "cozier than Lemaire." The service is solid and there are a few stellar menu items, but I'm still wondering why not climb that famous staircase and bet on the tried-and-true menu of its elder sibling?

That said, to visit The Jefferson's lobby during the holidays is to step into a Christmas carol. From the peaceful crŠche to the life-sized gingerbread house to the collection of dolls depicting gift-giver legends from around the world, the hotel is a holiday treat. Drop by and soak up the holiday spirit. And while you're there, warm up with a superb cup of coffee and a helping of TJ's chocolate mousse. S



T.J.'s Lounge
($$$)
The Jefferson Hotel
101 W. Franklin St.
649-4672
reservations recommended)
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Dinner: 5-10 p.m. daily
www.jeffersonhotel.com/dining_tj.htm

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