Looks aren't everything, as the new upscale BYO in Haddonfield proves. Dining in comfort doesn't make up for mediocre food and service.

Posted: April 13, 2008

To eat at Javier, or not to eat at Javier?

That is the question I'm sure more than a few South Jersey diners have pondered in the last few months as they peered into the gold-and-chocolate plushness of this upscale new BYO in the heart of Haddonfield.

This self-described "trendy Continental" eatery, though, has serious work to do before I'm sold.

The local business community certainly has a stake in Javier's success, as it tries to power up its fine-dining scene next to the bright lights of neighboring Collingswood. Owner Robert Sanabria says Partnership for Haddonfield, which manages the quaint downtown's Business Improvement District, committed $50,000 in grant money, plus subsidies for six months of free rent.

It seemed like a good bet, considering Sanabria's successful track record as former owner of Collingswood's Word of Mouth, and the now-closed Food for Thought, which began in the late '80s in the tiny Haddon Avenue space now occupied by Tre Famiglia.

But what has Javier delivered for this investment? A dramatic display of mediocrity served at outrageous prices.

My $29 tuna entree alone was a five-act tragedy. First came a dish prepared completely differently from the potato-wrapped fish described on the menu, which it turns out, was several weeks out of date.

Then came skulduggery as a neighboring waiter dissed our server: "He's new. He was supposed to tell you that."

Of course, it wasn't his fault the kitchen had totally undercooked the fish, hardly searing this still-cold piece of tuna, though we'd asked for it medium-rare.

The tuna redo, predictably, brought a steaming gray hunk of fish so carelessly overcooked, I really didn't want it anymore.

A proper apology should have been the final act, but a couple of free desserts and coffee was the only gesture. Plus, the full $29 charge for the ruined fish.

"Can I wrap that tuna to go?" our waiter asked straight-faced.

No, thanks. Nor would I have taken home almost anything else that had been served to us that night.

The "crab stack," which brought two cakes sandwiched around mashed avocado, was lukewarm. The stuffed mushroom was so slapdash, it looked like a portobello mitt catching a pistachio-crusted puck of tepid goat cheese. The $24 tilapia (and that's a lot for soapy-tasting fish fillets) was seared to a brown crisp, then set over a mound of rice sticky with sweet chile sauce that was ringed by pureed canned figs - an especially weak attempt at Asian fusion for a self-styled "trendy" place.

The Bolivian-born Sanabria also claims to have scattered Latin flavors across this menu, but fried yucca with chicken was the only evidence I saw of that. If anything, this menu's "Continental" leanings are strongest, with generous helpings of rich demiglace (often to the detriment of more vivid flavors), and some quasi-Italian moves that were the menu's most successful.

The homemade agnolotti stuffed with duck confit was probably the kitchen's best entree. But why destroy the delicate sage-brown butter sauce with the addition of demiglace? The lobster pappardelle was passable, though evidence of actual lobster was too skimpy and too chewy to merit $25.

At prices like these for cooking this poor, I really can't imagine why anyone would come back. Of course, I was professionally obliged to make a repeat visit - and I'm glad that I returned. One month later, I began to see a glimmer of Javier's appeal.

For one thing, the restaurant has extraordinarily comfortable chairs. (And they're perfectly matched to the plush chocolate-and-gold-toned decor!)

The service was less disastrous under the direct ministrations of suave maitre d' Gustavo Zegarra. I also began to see a hint of improvement from the kitchen, which had nudged prices down a few dollars.

The balsamic-streaked calamari were nicely fried and notably tender. A sesame-crusted ahi appetizer was perfectly seared, dabbed with lively pickled ginger vinaigrette and wasabi-infused whipped cream. And the seared day-boat scallops over carrot-sweetened saffron butter would have been stellar had my teeth not crunched down on a gritty bit of sea bottom (an unfortunate distraction that was repeated with scallops served over the seafood risotto). A decent mushroom risotto came with a fan of duck breast that was tender, even if it was overcooked.

Even the crab stack was warm this time! But I wonder why any self-respecting chef would dumb down such a dish with salsa made from chewy frozen corn niblets? The fact that Javier has no compunction about putting canned white beans beneath its $29 rack of lamb is just as telling. There is simply a stark disconnect here between what the restaurant wants to charge and the quality of what it delivers.

The "center-cut" strip steak, for example, was hardly worth $32, not after this 12-ounce slice of meat (which cost the restaurant about $10) was dredged in peppercorns (not mentioned on the menu) and slathered in demiglace. Flavors aside, the butter knife I had to cut it with could barely saw through the knot of gristle that ribboned half my steak. Which left only about $16 worth left to ponder.

To eat at Javier, or not to eat at Javier? I think I know the answer to that question.

On April 20, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Dim Sum Garden in Chinatown. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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