RESTAURANT REVIEW: J. Paul'z 

Not the Same Old Bull: A familiar new chef brings excitement to J. Paul'z

J. Paul'z
Tapas
1739 Maybank Hwy. James Island
(843) 795-6995
Entrees: $5-$10
Dinner nightly

Plop down at the bar over at J'Paulz these days, and you won't notice a lot of change until you get your food. The place still looks like the result of a one-night stand between a Pier One and the Pottery Barn, and it still has that boisterous Monday Night football, neighborhood bar feel. But now a refreshing array of well-prepared small plates, tinged with the influence of exotic shores, come out of the kitchen courtesy of new chef Daniel Caruso.

I wouldn't expect any less from the man. He routinely works late into the night; I know this because he moved in next door to me a year and a half ago. It was clear from the start that we lived in two different worlds: his primarily nocturnal, mine a boring day job — and he still thinks I don't like him. Our paths rarely cross; an occasional wave across the back fence, but nary a word spoken. Perhaps he thought that I didn't like his tattoos, or took issue with his dogs, which look like the meanest hounds this side of the Michael Vick estate (I've heard they're gentle as can be), but of course none of that could be further from the truth. I knew this day would come. I knew that one day my neighbor would move up and out of the kitchen at The Sanctuary, onto his own turf, to claim a spotlight of his own. Then I would be asked to briefly hold the light and judge his culinary acumen.

I would have to tell the world of his sushi, well prepared and professionally presented nigiri-sushi with perfect rice, and maki rolls as tight as hand-rolled cigars. I would have to exalt his "Spicy Tuna" roll ($8), perfectly balanced, piquant, and served with low sodium soy sauce. It's as good as any roll in town. I would have to tell the readers of the City Paper that Daniel Caruso is a really good chef.

His various dishes are perfect small bites for a crowd. You can bring a few friends for the game, or go on Wednesdays for ladies night, where the girls get free massages in the small lobby. You can sit down to innovative tapas plates that bring a touch of world culture to the table. Perhaps some homegrown "Chicken 'n' Waffles" ($8) with grilled chicken piled on waffle toasts made with aged cheddar and topped with a sweet corn chutney. Or you could munch on the "Crispy Avocados" ($8), which, when they aren't grossly under seasoned, are probably pretty good.

The grilled hanger steak is perfectly prepared — they know the meaning of rare — and the sweet and sour note of the pickled onions on top provides the perfect foil for the richness of the accompanying jus and the steak itself, thinly sliced and presented in the perfect munchable portion.

All of it is pretty good, but the "Crispy Red Snapper" ($11) has little equal west of the Ashley. Only the signature red snapper dish at Red Orchids even comes close. Perhaps it is the Asian flavors that seem so well suited to snapper, but for whatever reason, Caruso's sings from the plate. He combines a chunk of red snapper and its golden crunch with a bed of Chinese black rice, lays about some slivers of shiitake mushroom, sliced thinly enough that they complement rather than overpower, and punctuates the whole with fresh bits of asparagus, still crunchy and green. A delicious sauce swirls beneath, full of citrus and soy and other mysterious Asian flavors. It is perfection.

It would be hard for me to praise his food with any credibility had he been over to my house for dinner on the weekends or to knock back beers during football on Monday night. So I've been a bad neighbor in order to tell you that this guy can cook. Now I hope he'll drop by for a beer sometime.

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