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** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Varied menu found in overdue visit to Chop’s

It is a place that I have enjoyed over the years, but also a place I rarely visit.

When the Chop’s Wine Bar opened next door as an offshoot of the original, it was more on my radar which made the regular restaurant even more of an afterthought.

But during my recent visits, I think I discovered why it has been off my radar. It is not as fine dining as say Eddie Merlot’s, but not as much of an everyday place as say the Hall’s Tavern, and that puts it in an odd category.

Two dishes that showed this dichotomy the best were the featured bone-in New York strip and the Apple Pork Chop.

The 16-ounce strip was impressive and would be fine on any fine dining establishment’s menu.

It was perfectly cooked, tender, juicy and flavorful, and its bourbon-molasses demi-glace had a nice bite from the bourbon. It was garnished with a black bean and corn relish that gave it a bit of a Southwestern feel, which paired nicely with black and bleu mashed potatoes. Those potatoes were orange – I assume from some peppery spice – and had just a hint of the tasty bleu cheese.

The chop, however, didn’t live up to its price or promise.

The 12-ounce, center-cut chop looked the part with beautiful grill marks and a bone jutting out of one end. It was resting upon maple-roasted sweet potatoes, had one tiny apple slice on top and a demi-glace pooling on the plate.

But it was tough and dry. The demi-glace was thin like broth and did not cling to the meat so it didn’t help mask its dryness. Nor could the delicious sweet potato cubes, of which I ate every morsel – something I couldn’t boast about the chop.

Had I gotten it at a family restaurant for $12.99 I could have seen past its mediocre quality, but at $19.95 at a place with Chop’s reputation – and, heck, name – I expected more.

I got more than I expected from the appetizers.

The Spicy Beef Egg Rolls were great. The chopped beef was tender, moist and mixed nicely with cabbage, celery and carrot. They were beautifully arranged on the plate with a pile of tasty slaw in the center and two sauces underneath even though the menu only said it came with a ginger sauce. The kitchen was a little heavy-handed with those sauces – neither of which had any ginger that I could detect – when I needed very little of either.

When I tried the crab cakes, I knew what the egg roll sauces were because the cakes came with a remoulade and a red pepper coulis which looked exactly like the sauces with my egg rolls. The cakes were fantastic. They were coated in Asian bread crumbs and crisp outside, but very moist and meaty inside with a real strong punch of crab flavor. But, again, the sauces were not really needed and too heavily applied.

The Tomato-crab Bisque had the same intense crab flavor as the cakes. The creamy orange soup had tiny flecks of crab throughout and the tomato did just what it should by adding some acidic tang to the rich soup, offsetting the sweetness perfectly.

The Crispy Goat Cheese Salad was also worth having again. Fresh mixed greens were loaded with shavings of fresh parmesan cheese, roasted red peppers, red onions, artichoke hearts and breaded goat cheese croutons that were crunchy outside and silky smooth inside.

The best entrée next to the strip was the featured pan-seared halibut. The fish was impeccably prepared and gorgeous on the plate with a drizzle of balsamic reduction. The pesto rice pilaf was also a perfect side. The second accompaniment, fried spinach, nearly ruined the dish, however.

I have had fried kale before, but never fried spinach and I think I know why. It was dry, crumbly and had a real off-putting flavor. It tasted like it was burnt or fried in old oil.

Other good finds:

•The Alderwood Smoked Salmon appetizer was as fun as it was scrumptious. Served on a paper-covered cutting board, it included four thick slices of smoky king salmon, diced red onions, capers, chopped boiled eggs, dill cream cheese and sesame seed-dotted flatbread crackers to pile those ingredients on to your liking.

•The Seafood Manicotti was stuffed with plenty of shrimp, blue crab, ricotta, parmesan and goat cheese, and topped with a tomato-cream sauce that was the perfect choice as it worked like the tomatoes in the bisque to tame the sweetness. The thick layer of the whipped cheese mixture with the seafood really made this dish work.

But there were several low points at Chop’s:

•The Seafood Paella was simply terrible. It had two overcooked, rubbery shrimp, three tiny mussels and a chunk of the “catch of the day” tilapia, which was also overcooked and dry. It was loaded with roasted red peppers which overpowered everything else so I could not taste any saffron in the saffron-scented rice.

•The bread pudding was sort of a deconstructed version with several wedges of pudding on a long flat plate garnished with berries, whipped cream and caramel. The wedges were firm instead of gooey and soaked with custard, sort of like a hunk of week-old bread pudding pulled straight from the fridge. The flavors worked fine together, but it was not what I think of when I want bread pudding.

But the biggest issues I had during my return trips to Chop’s were with the inconsistencies (i.e. its dichotomy).

The service was great one time, but another time the person waiting on me struggled with every question and made several clumsy errors.

The atmosphere also wasn’t what I remembered. The booths and tables are dated and need to be replaced, the blinds are unattractive and look like something from a discount store. Even the smattering of nice artwork is crowded on the walls and gets lost.

At 8 p.m., the lights suddenly go dim, which was not only startling, it was distracting as they flickered for several minutes before settling.

I also must advise you to be specific about your expectations when making a reservation because I made a reservation well in advance and was given the worst seat in the house – right around the corner from the host station where it was even noisier and a line of people constantly marched past throughout my meal.

Restaurant: Chop’s

Address: 6421 W Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 436-9115

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Steak & seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Not really

Menu: Beef egg rolls ($7.95), crab cakes ($9.95), smoked salmon ($12.95), goat cheese salad ($9.95), pork chop ($19.95), paella ($19.95), seafood manicotti ($19.95), NY Strip ($32.95), bread pudding ($5),

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.