Here we have three dinners at two restaurants. Jimmy D's East Coast Café in Lexington focuses on casual Italian-American dining, while its sister restaurant, Duggans American Grill in Midway, is upscale contemporary. What they have in common is Jimmy Duggan, originally from Boston, trained at Johnson & Wales University, and now in Lexington via Napa Valley and Los Angeles.
Even with such credentials, both his ventures seem in transition, because Jimmy D's might be under new ownership soon and Duggans is still settling into the old Black Tulip location, a space that's loaded (unfairly?) with the burden of sentimentality and comparison.
When I use the term "in transition," it includes a presumably temporary inconsistency as details and identity issues get worked out. In any case, that is my hope.
First, let's consider Jimmy D's, where a four-course meal is easily less than $25 a person, and dip-it-yourself garlic bread is complimentary.
I'm pretty orthodox when it comes to bruschetta, which relies on crisp grilled bread and seasonal produce to shine. This version was more like an open-faced sandwich: toast topped with chilly December tomatoes and melted mozzarella. The "Caesar" salad also departed from tradition, substituting iceberg lettuce for romaine and tangy vinaigrette for a creamier dressing; it must have been croutons that made it a Caesar.
Entrees also were a mixed bag. The marinara sauce, quite one-note, and pasta, a bit overcooked, both improved when alcohol, cream and bacon were added, as in the penne alla vodka, or when paired with tender meatballs. The veal piccata would have been better as delicate cutlets, but its lemon sauce strewn with capers was delicious.
My favorite dish of the evening, hands down, was vegetarian lasagna, a generous helping of perfectly cooked pasta balanced with cheese and marinara, served piping hot.
As for dessert, the homemade cannoli were crunchy, but the ricotta filling was bland and the chocolate chips too large. A serving of tiramisu, however, delivered from Eli's in Chicago, was absolutely top-notch.
Now let's go farther down Leestown Road into Midway. My two experiences at Duggans suggest the best meals here happen when Duggan is in the kitchen.
On my first visit, Duggan was primarily in the front of the house. He has great energy, so that's a good thing, but his absence resulted in several gaffes, including an appetizer of scallops that arrived underseared, an otherwise luscious spinach-artichoke dip that was lukewarm beneath its bubbly surface, and an entree of herb-crusted rack of lamb that was so rare it verged on raw.
But these are issues of timing. Items that didn't involve much oversight succeeded best: lovely herb butter, a Caesar salad whose star was succulent white anchovies, and a wondrous Boston cream pie that could become an addiction.
The second time around, the kitchen was clearly under Duggan's control. Although I just sampled a couple of entrees that night, I could find no fault with the perfect ravioli in a crème fraiche and basil sauce stuffed with sugary peak-of-season sweet potatoes and crisscrossed with grilled asparagus. Duggan's chicken piccata, almost thick tenders, remained faithful to the sauce of lemon, capers and white wine — although I would have preferred classic paper-thin escalopes to chunks of chicken.
I realize that not everyone wears a critic's hat, and sometimes a friendly meal adds up to the perfect evening. That's reasonable. But the question is whether friendliness alone can overcome customer response to culinary changes that might be in the offing for Jimmy D's or those that already have occurred with Duggans. My guess is that the more exacting the action in the kitchen, the brighter the future for both restaurants.