RESTAURANT REVIEW: J'Paulz 

A Place to Call Your Own

J'Paulz
Tapas
Entrees $5-$10
1739 Maybank Hwy.
James Island
Dinner, Sunday Brunch
795-6995

Everyone needs a regular joint — the kind of laid-back, unpretentious eatery that remains easy on the wallet, where the food is pretty good and the servers call you by name. A neighborhood place mirrors the clientele, serving whatever its customer base demands. You don't show up here to be impressed by haughty cuisine; you keep coming back because the beer is cold, the service is friendly, and you always run into a couple of people you know. J'Paulz typifies one of these places.

The building is unassuming, tucked away among the commercial sprawl of Maybank Highway; you'll feel equally comfortable in jeans or a sport coat — or both. The conservative brick exterior and ho-hum shopping center location belie the rather unexpected scene inside. The lobby sports a large, cascading fountain embellished with the emblematic bull logo, softly splashing a welcoming tune while '80s love songs play in the background. The interior décor is a profusion of plush cushions, glowing votives, dark wood, and glittering fixtures; combined with large potted plants and glazed ceramics, the space feels very 'suburban chic' — like Pier One exploded inside a Miyabi Steakhouse.

The dinner seating presents a variety of options, beyond the long bar, open kitchen, and large flat-screen televisions on the wall. Low pedestal tables are surrounded by Japanese-style floor cushions while large, glass-topped medieval doors serve as community tables. Small lacquered café tables are mixed into the scene, bustling with the clink of glass and conviviality. There is little pretension here; you feel as though you might be sitting in an apartment with a good many friends gathered, watching the game and snacking on some grub.

Dishes at J'Paulz posture as serious food while still remaining grounded in the reality of pleasing a diverse clientele — and there is literally something for everyone. Students, retirees, and child-rearing suburbanites alike will find the menu inviting. The place is not going to win accolades for its originality or impeccable flavor, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do — satisfy a hungry crowd with ample plates of unchallenging food. The menu, which includes both tapas-style plates and sushi selections, provides consistent flavors and a few hidden gems — some of them downright delicious.

The tapas side of the menu features an assortment of vegetable, seafood, meat, and cheese dishes with mixed results. Offerings include the very confused "Shrimp & Asparagus Tart" ($8), which, rather than a traditional pastry, presents a deconstructed concoction tasting of goat cheese, commercial onion dip, and seafood — a thoroughly unappetizing, oversized lump resting atop a crispy mound of flash-fried phyllo dough, surrounded by blanched asparagus spears. The "Shrimp, Zucchini, and Bacon Bundles" ($7) blend an equally nondescript combination of the star ingredients, wound around each other and deep fried in a thick, enveloping batter, with the shrimp, bacon, and greasy crust easily overpowering any notions of zucchini — perhaps good, cheap bar fare, but nothing to write home about.

Undeniably, the "Grilled Hanger Steak with Truffle & Port Reduction" ($9) represents the best dish on the menu. It comes perfectly cooked (these people know the meaning of rare), sliced thinly across the grain, quivering in a mouth-watering reduction of port wine, the wonderful scent of black périgord truffles wafting from the plate. The succulence of the meat and truffle fully makes up for the bland potatoes that hide beneath (although pommes frites with a little garlic aioli would be an excellent improvement to the dish).

The sushi side of the menu serves up an acceptable plate of raw fish, with the usual rolls, nigiri, and sashimi joined by original specialty rolls such as the "Super Crunch" ($11), combining tempura fried shrimp, spicy diced tuna, and cream cheese, and the eclectic "Surf & Turf" ($11), a mind-blowing combination of shrimp, raw beef, tuna, and avocado. The proportion of fish to rice seems a bit on the starchy side of things, but having truffled steak and creative sushi rolls on the same menu has to count for something, right? Regardless, go for the steak, eat some of the fish, drink the libations; you just might find yourself a new place to call your own.

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