The southwest corner of Vine Street and Limestone, an intersection for years equated with Mexican-American fare, was reborn this winter as J. Morse Bistro on Vine. Walls of Lexington memorabilia have replaced murals, a small bar now stands where a counter used to be. Gone also are the stale chips and mediocre food.
While the difference here between lunch and dinner is, literally and figuratively, day and night, the bistro style — simple, moderately priced meals in an informal setting — is adding dining promise to this formerly lackluster destination.
Between the two meals, lunch gets short shrift. Tables are either unadorned or have plastic covers, and the plates are Styrofoam. The vibe is blasé, forgivable when the food is wonderful but annoying if the fried chicken is stringy, the mashed potatoes bland, and the lima beans taste like they came from a freezer pouch. At least, at $6.95, this hearty meal was reasonable. A half turkey sandwich reminded me of a boxed lunch; the accompanying gazpacho ($6.95 for both items) was a nicely textured puree, tart yet slightly sweet.
But then, after 5 p.m., J. Morse dons white tablecloths, lights tiny candles, brings out obliging waiters and offers very good food.
The "bistro plates" — appetizers that in quantity make a meal — can be delicious. Three fried green tomatoes ($7) were sweet, if a little undercooked, but their Parmesan crust and chipotle mayonnaise were redemptive. Two crab cakes ($8), dusted with panko bread crumbs, arrived piping hot but were more bread than seafood. But the remoulade was great. "Prawns" ($12) is a modest label for subtly smoky shrimp on a bed of creamed leeks. Although the leeks were al dente — not leeks' best texture — the cream sauce is a keeper and best finished off with chunks of warm bread.
I hope J. Morse succeeds in bringing back tableside preparation to Lexington restaurants. It's wonderful to witness the blending of a real Caesar salad ($14 for two) as the pasteurized eggs emulsify into a creamy dressing, the anchovies are mashed to suggest sea salt, and the whole course is tossed with garlic and crisp romaine. It wanted only better croutons.
Both entrees I sampled were delicious.
Grilling duck breast ($18) with its layer of fat requires skill, and this kitchen did a nice job. The exceptionally tender meat was not greasy. The broccoli, unlike the leeks, had the perfect texture, soft but not mushy. This dish came with garlic new potatoes, but the Gruyère gratin sounded more compatible. With no objections, this sophisticated substitute was made and turned out, in fact, to be the better partner.
The roasted, salty garlic new potatoes ended up with the mahi-mahi ($16), altogether fitting since the flaky white fish was prepared in a more rustic style, like that of coq au vin: red wine, mushrooms and pancetta, missing only small white onions. The staff was again very patient with my request to give me a wilted spinach salad instead of another side of broccoli.
J. Morse's tableside flare appears again at dessert, with a choice of flambéed bananas Foster or cherries jubilee ($14 for two). Get the latter, even though they have an unconventional addition of rum instead of brandy or kirsch (cherry liqueur). Either way, the blue flames are theater. The fruit is fresh, and the buttery brown sugar sauce tastes wonderful over vanilla ice cream.
J. Morse will, I am sure, evolve as a bistro, stick with its winners, tweak some details and end up being a prime example of how to breathe new life into a strategic downtown location.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.