A split verdict.
Hard by the Franklin County Courthouse, just the other side of South High Street on Mound Street, is a little brick building built in 1831 that for some time has housed restaurants or bars of one kind or another. It was called the Jury Room in its last incarnation and still is—but now the place joins the list of Liz Lessner joints: Betty’s Fine Food & Spirits, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails, Surly Girl Saloon and Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace, all of which are popular and pretty good (or better).
The Jury Room was comfy and charming, with maybe the feel of a little Italian restaurant in Chelsea before the influx of chi-chi art galleries and expensive condo conversions. The charm was partly due to all the warm and inviting old oak and other hardwoods (from the window frames to the attractive bar). There also was a real fireplace, nice and cozy on my February visits. The stamped tin ceiling was lovely.
Service was friendly and prompt. Sitting at the bar one night waiting for a companion, I was treated like a friend. No complaints there. The wine list was modest, but there were several good beers and the place served legendary old cocktails and tasty new concoctions. My small sampling of those suggests the bartenders know their stuff.
The mostly Italian menu sounded inviting—exciting even—with classic dishes, new foods and interesting-sounding combinations.
I sure wish the food lived up to the promise of the menu, though. Sadly, preparation here fell short—so short, in fact, I wonder if Lessner has stretched herself too thin.
The grilled asparagus bruschetta (allegedly with grilled crostini) was terrible. It was ice cold, with far more tomato than asparagus. The supposedly featured vegetable was not grilled and tasted of medicinal bottled garlic. It came with plain slices of baguette that weren’t toasted, grilled or even warm. If I hadn’t been reviewing, I would have complained and asked for my $8 back. Also costing $8 was the vegetable antipasto, which was no more than canned or bottled peppers, artichoke hearts and olives mixed in a messy and unappetizing pile; there were some pieces of asparagus, too, flavorless in their cold marinade. One night’s clams casino (a favorite dish of mine) was ruined by wet breading and undercooked clams. The fried calamari would have been decent if they weren’t placed in marinara sauce, which, predictably, made the otherwise crisp breading soggy. (Put the sauce on the side, folks.) The garlic bread had all the taste and texture of Wonder hot dog buns. And the vegetables in the minestrone soup were just flavorless mush.
These negative experiences occurred on both lunch and dinner visits. Confoundingly, on those same trips there was good food, too. The spaghetti and meatballs was delicious. I also liked the spaghetti with white claim sauce and a crisp Caesar salad in a pungent dressing. Slivers of seared zucchini were tender, but firm, paired with a lively marinara. A little basket of homemade bread served while I waited at the bar was decent. The hoagie part of the menu had several options, and the classic Italian—pepperoni, salami, capicola, romaine, tomatoes and provolone—was good. One night’s escarole soup with little meatballs was tasty and warming.
I liked the look, feel and idea behind this place very much. If someone were to pay close attention to the food quality and preparation problems, it could be a good restaurant.
22 E. Mound St.
Atmosphere: Old-style charm.
Recommended dishes: Spaghetti and meatballs, Italian hoagie, escarole soup, Caesar salad.
Price range: Starters $6-$9; salads and soups $3-$8; spaghetti dishes $7-$9; house specialties $11-$20; hoagies $8.
Hours: Daily 11 am to 2 am.
Service: Friendly and prompt.
Reservations: Not accepted.