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John Henry's Seafood Restaurant
Restaurant in Trenton under new ownership.
John Henry's family now at 2275 Kuser Road, Hamilton Square at
The Stone Terrace by John Henry's

2 Mifflin Street
Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 396-3083

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
10/11/2004

Presided over by owner John Henry, Sr., and sons John, Jr., Gary, and Gerald, John Henry's Seafood Restaurant has been a mainstay of Trenton's Chambersburg section since 1988. Known for its plenteous portions, moderate prices, Old World atmosphere, and friendly service, the restaurant's cuisine isn't likely to hold any big surprises, but diners are certain to find it as comforting and comfortable as the surroundings.

And the pleasant, diminutive bar sets just the proper tone for your evening at table. Here you may enjoy your favorite preprandial libation or make a selection from the compact wine list. Good bets by the glass include a light and refreshing Aristcratico Pinot Grigio ($7.00), Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay ($6.00), sleek & seductive William Hill Merlot ($8.00), and lusty St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.00). By the bottle, the Franciscan Oakville Chardonnay ($26.00) is an excellent choice, as are the rough and ready Ruffino Chianti ($17.00) and more sophisticated Antinori Chianti Riserva ($33.00).

Smoking is permitted at the bar and in the adjacent subdued and softly lit dining area. The room reserved for nonsmokers is a bright and cherry domicile tastefully adorned with skylights, mirrors, and subtle hues of salmon and green. Wherever you finally alight, however, you will be serenaded by the mellifluous melodies of Al Martino, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Dean Martin, and the haunting refrains of the theme from the Godfather.

Which brings us to the food... Politics, as they say, breeds strange bedfellows -- and, in point of fact, so do matters culinary. Take, for example, the unique symbiosis between steak and seafood. Leaving aside that maladroit contrivance known as "Surf & Turf" -- which, incidentally, is available on John Henry's bill of fare ($33.95) -- these two comestibles, in the minds of many diners, have always been the objects of a certain gastronomic ambivalence. So allow me to cut to the quick...

In my humble opinion, ordering seafood in a steakhouse (depending upon the quality and reputation of the establishment, of course) is generally to be considered a safe, sane, and socially acceptable practice. And the reason for this is quite simple: X number of years ago, for various reasons of health, Americans had red meat on the run. In order to survive, beef emporiums were forced to add finny fare and other inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker to their repertoires and prepare same with at least a modicum of proficiency. And even though beef has staged a remarkable comeback, seafood continues to hold a prominent place in many bovine-based chophouses.

Unfortunately, the obverse is usually not the case. I wouldn't go so far as to say that anyone who orders steak in a seafood restaurant has a gastronomic death wish... However, in my experience, meatier matters simply don't fare terribly well within piscatorial precincts. In establishments majoring in seafood, like John Henry's, for example, it is always better to swim with the tide rather than against it.

And there is certainly a plethoric variety of excellent appetizers from which to choose... The mini crab claw cocktail fingers ($7.95) are a first-rate starter. Arranged in a circle on a bed of ice, an epicenter of homemade spicy mustard sauce provides a zippy counterpoint to the sweet crabmeat. Pristinely fresh clams (6 at $5.95; 12 at $9.95) and oysters ($7.95) may be ordered on the half shell or casino-style (clams, $6.95; Maryland oysters, $7.95), adorned with a spicy seasoning and topped with bacon.

The mussels ($6.95) -- sautéed in a white wine/olive oil/garlic sauce and sprinkled with fresh basil, chopped tomatoes & garlic -- are of excellent quality and completely devoid of sediment. My only quibble with this daily special is the fact that the oil is much too pronounced, eclipsing rather than enhancing the natural attributes inherent in the sauce. The Manhattan clam chowder ($3.25 cup; $4.00 crock) is good but not exceptional and could use a bit more pizzazz.

Among the non-seafood items, when Garden State beefsteaks are in season, the Jersey tomato salad ($6.95) is not to be missed. The slices are thick and meaty, topped with a basil leaf, mozzarella cheese, sprinkling of diced red onions, crisscross of anchovies, and finished with an oil and vinegar dressing. The salad is a simple but most satisfying mélange of colors, tastes, and textures -- save for the anchovies, which throw the otherwise subtle balance of flavors into a cocked hat. I would strongly suggest that these horrid little fiends be eighty-sixed from the guest list, as the party will be infinitely more enjoyable without them. You might also prevail upon the kitchen to go light on the dressing, which, unchecked, tends to envelope all constituents in an ostentatiously oleaginous outpouring.

... And an overabundance of oil also proves to be the Achilles' heel of several of the entrées. The charcoal shrimp ($15.95), for example, are beautifully seasoned, crunchy and delicious and set on a pillow of rice... which, for some inexplicable reason, is awash with oil. The special black and white sesame seed-encrusted tuna ($23.50) suffers from a similar fate and a number of other problems as well. Accompaniments of wasabi mashed potatoes, miniature charcoal-grilled shrimp, and sprinkling of chopped Jersey tomatoes serve the dish well, but the tuna itself, ordered medium rare, arrives well done and moves on to VERY well done at the drop of a fork. It is also too heavily encrusted; and the portion size is so overwhelming that the presentation isn't particularly attractive to the eye. Add to this the aforementioned surfeit of oil and it only takes a few bites to completely turn off the palate.

The most edifying entrées here are clearly those that require the least amount of complicated preparatory procedures. Orange roughy ($17.95), for instance... The filet is simply broiled with a touch of lemon, butter, and white wine. Its moist, flaky texture is just right, as are its presentational companions: a first-rate vegetable medley -- yellow squash, zucchini, snow peas, and carrots -- and perfectly roasted potato wedges. Sweet, meaty sea scallops ($18.95) are similarly prepared, as are the filet of flounder ($16.95) and Boston scrod ($15.95).

Atlantic salmon ($18.95) -- which may be ordered poached, grilled, or broiled -- is another good bet. However, when it is teamed up with a strawberry cream sauce as a nightly special ($21.95), the two principals go at each other like riled up strangers. Trust me, this is not a culinary match made in heaven. And a soggy mound of vegetable couscous makes a decidedly poor chaperone.

You might also consider a number of Italian seafood specialties: lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams served up in marinara or fra diavolo over linguine or angel hair ($27.95); littlenecks sautéed in red or white clam sauce ($15.95); or tri-color seafood tortellini with scallops and shrimp in an Alfredo cream sauce ($17.95). Or why not drop by on Tuesday evening, "Lobster Night," and order a 1-1/4 pounder replete with vegetables or pasta and a house salad for a mere $15.95?

Desserts are probably this restaurant's weakest link, but there are still one or two that are worth considering. The macadamia/white chocolate cookie ice cream sandwich garnished with strawberry coulis and crème anglaise ($5.50), for instance, is a down-home winner. And, although it is commercially produced, I still find it hard to resist the seductive charms of Reese's peanut butter pie ($4.95). The house-made tiramisù ($5.50) isn't bad either; unfortunately, the representative sampled was frozen in the middle.

John Henry's isn't likely to impress you with either culinary fireworks or environmental razzle-dazzle. But then, of course, it isn't trying to. This is one establishment that seems to know instinctively its role in the ultimate scheme of things... and it is perfectly content to offer its patrons a warm welcome, pleasant surroundings, gracious service, and a solid array of seafood at less than wallet busting tariffs. Whether dining at lunch or dinner, for business or pleasure, John Henry's will surely make you feel... well, yes... downright comfortable.

Cuisine: Seafood with Italian subtitles
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 4:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 3:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major except Discover
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.johnhenrysseafood.com

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