We have some picky eaters in our house, so visiting a restaurant as a family is not something we do often. Usually only one or two of our children tag along with us to a place that is carefully selected for its ability to provide a dish that has a better-than-50-percent chance of being consumed. With this criterion in mind, I took my 12-year-old son with me on a mid-June Friday night to Au Jus in Milan. Formerly called Hodge Podge, the new restaurant opened in August. Turns out I picked the right kid, anyway.
Located at 1213 West 10th Avenue, Au Jus is a self-described bar and grill. The marquee in the parking lot reads, "We welcome sports teams." As we walked in, I noticed a sizable grill on a wide patio fronting a private banquet room - perhaps for those indoor/outdoor gatherings. We, however, were shown to a large booth in the main dining area to the left of this, a space dominated by the large bar at its center, and the salad bar behind the hostess stand.
I began with stuffed mushroom caps, chosen from a standard appetizer list (though they do offer escargots) that includes various deep-fried veggies and cheeses, potato skins, spinach dip, and shrimp cocktail. I was disappointed with these, as the flavor of the seafood stuffing was overpowered by too much melted cheese - a finely grated cheddar/jack blend that managed to be oily and grainy at the same time.
A couple I am acquainted with stopped by on the way to their table to say hello as my son and I were eating. They are frequent diners at Au Jus. They don't cook, they said, and live nearby. And they love the salad bar.
I wish I could say the same.
Because here, like with every other salad bar, there is always the same variety of veggies and other toppings for your lettuce. You will always have a choice of the same half-dozen bottled dressings. And you will always find potato salads, pasta salads, broccoli or peas tossed with mayo, and pudding and applesauce. And occasionally you may find a seafood spread for crackers that can double as a stuffing for mushroom caps. But I would trade all of these mundane offerings for a chance at a house signature salad, or even a house dressing, prepared by hand in Au Jus' kitchen.
Our entrées though, were excellent. My son ordered the pork chop, which was broiled to perfection, and the chef's simple rendering of this dish appealed to his rather persnickety palate. Dark lines from the grill criss-crossed the meat's salted and peppered surface; the presentation was as pleasing as the taste. My son ate every tender, juicy bite, except the one he gave to me. The mashed potatoes he ordered with his dinner were prepared in what seems to be the current fashion: unpeeled and smashed, not whipped and smooth.
Since we were at Au Jus, I ordered prime rib. I ordered it medium rare, and that's how it was served. I prefer it to be rather lean, and it was beautifully so. Prime rib should never be chewy, and this was roasted so exactly that it almost flaked like cod. The beef was served au jus, of course, bathing in a rich broth poured into the bottom of a deep plate. The beef stock was neither too salted nor too seasoned and soaked into every bite. Horseradish cream sauce was served on the side by our conscientious server without being asked. And because it was underdone by my son's standards, I didn't have to share.
The hash browns I had on the side were homemade - crisp on the outside, and hot off the griddle. They were delicious.
We had neither time nor room for dessert, although sundaes, turtle cheesecake, and carrot cake are offered. However, I did enjoy some nicely full-bodied coffee while revisiting the menu.
Because its menu lists steaks and prime rib, chicken and pasta, seafood and stir-fry, and sandwiches and wraps, Au Jus ought to appeal to almost any taste. Out-of-the-ordinary menu items include frog legs, beef liver and onions, duck à l'orange, king crab legs, and lobster. Nine "lighter side" entrées with sides can be ordered for $9.95 for the cost-conscious. Prices otherwise average $14, with steaks costing a few dollars more, and seem in-line with similar fare found locally at other restaurants.
The Au Jus bartenders can provide anything from margaritas to martinis to the scores of the games on the twin TVs. The Bud, Miller, and Coors families of beer are well represented, and Guinness, Corona, and Dos Equis are a few of the imports available. Sycamore Lane is the label of the house wines, costing less than $4 a glass. Notable white wines include Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio and Monkey Bay Chardonnay. Mike Ditka's Merlot heads a list of reds. Prices per bottle all hover around $25.
So my12-year-old cleaned his plate. The prime rib was terrific. A different navigation of the menu on a return visit could perhaps change my lukewarm opinion of the place. I sure didn't think the pickier eater was going to end up being me.