JAMES JOHN CAFÉ doesn't make sense. At least not the kind of sense found in a typical restaurant, arranged around a theme or guiding principle. Here, it's more a state of mind, with all the wonder and occasional confusion that entails. James John is also unassuming—a hole in the wall in St. Johns—and there's an oddness to it, the type that develops when people disregard the expectation of what they are "supposed to be doing." The cooking is homey, yet there is great attention to detail and craft. If chef Aaron Solley—who trained with the legendary Takashi Yagihashi as well as pastry luminary Michael Laiskonis—has a vision, it's a personal one. Given the quality of the food, it's one we all might want to share.
Known for a successful brunch and the occasional four-course dinner, James John has recently started opening four nights a week. Solley seems to have extended his brunch-time passion for curing, brining, and smoking ingredients to a new degree of mania, and pretty much everything that can be done in-house is—from pasta to smoked fish, to horseradish and hot sauce. The menu consists of half a dozen main dishes, a few more small plates/starters, and sides. (The menu itself is written on a chalkboard and placed on a chair by the table, a procedure I've personally never been fond of.)
There's a willful idiosyncrasy to the proceedings—the food is Southern-leaning to the extent that pimento cheese tea sandwiches are offered as sides, yet a typical salad Niçoise and an open-faced turkey sandwich also make an appearance. The meal begins with a cup of popcorn. In other words, there's no logical path. Just follow your appetite.
I tried the Netarts Bay oysters with house-made tomato gin granita ($3 each). I don't usually like toppings interfering with the fresh taste of a good oyster, but the granita was like a good smack inside the mouth, the acid of the tomato balancing the salinity of the oyster. Also excellent was a plate of trout ($8), delicately smoked so that the nuttiness of the fish flesh wasn't overpowered, while the accompanying horseradish sauce was flavorful but not dominating. The crackers, like everything else on the plate, were made in-house (it's probably time to give up mentioning this).
James John's food is at its best when the natural flavors are allowed to shine, as in the panzanella salad ($8), which was alive with tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and parsley (the café's vegetables are grown in its own garden), while a main course of pork carnitas and pinto beans ($11) had a perfect melt-in-the-mouth consistency and was moist without being watery. The BBQ shrimp and grits ($13), meanwhile, were agreeably juicy, but the sauce was on the sweet side; in this case the balancing act didn't quite work (though the grits were thick and rich). There was a mishap with a roasted red pepper risotto that was way over-salted; hopefully that was just a slip up—it was the only serious fault in half a dozen visits.
And the tea sandwiches? A plate of four sides is available for $12, so we tried the tasty pimento cheese and olive cream cheese versions, their bread cut into bite-sized pieces and the crusts properly removed. We supplemented this with spaghetti squash (buttery, lovely texture) and a slab of Spanish tortilla (crispy topping, not too heavy). Did it make sense? No. Did it matter? Not a bit.
The décor, much like the menu, is quirky, with still-life reproductions, taxidermy, and a religious figurine that lights up when the kitchen requires service—elements that might seem gimmicky or overdone in shinier parts of town, but here seem like a heartfelt reflection of personality. The room, though an open plan with a lovely high tin-plate ceiling retained from the building's earlier life as a bank (the first in St. Johns), is cozy once the candles are lit. Service, while casual, is as helpful and friendly as always.
One area that does need improvement is the wine list (cocktails, by the way, are excellent). It's not varied enough. And while Espiga is great for quaffing at home, it's not what I want with a good meal. Then again, we were told that they are still working through the wines left over from their occasional dinner series, and are planning to add others. They'll get to it when they're ready, it seems.
Dinner: Wed & Thurs 5–9 pm, Fri & Sat 5–10 pm. Brunch: Sun 9 am–2 pm