Described by staff as "casual, but upscale," John Phillips Restaurant & Bar is the new joint venture of Syndicate Owner John Whalen and Newport Police Captain Phillip Liles. Much more than a Kentucky Good Old Boys Club -- although some longtime Kentucky movers and shakers are certainly dining here -- this polished restaurant in Crestview Hills Town Center is the place to go when you want to make sure you're being served lobster tail specially flown in from Virgin CEO Richard Branson's private island without feeling a bit pretentious.
With a bar next door featuring beautiful blondes in their twenties and the crooning of a guitarist with a fetish for Jimmy Buffett, John Phillips seems to span all generations. While the customers have style, the décor is stylishly understated -- natural summer lighting filters through the black-tinted shades, and tiny lamps dangle from the ceiling. The restaurant is worth visiting for the lighting alone; it's like eating outside on a warm summer night.
The conversation also is easily worth a $70 check. Don't be surprised if you overhear phrases like "You're a doll" complete with kiss/kiss; "I can't believe she messed up the relationship with that pilot, she's going to end up with that UPS man"; and my favorite, "Are you Joe Johnson's daughter who was married to Carl Parker's nephew who used to live on Gladiolus next to the Browns?" At this place, folks seem to know each other.
When my partner and I arrived at the stylish restaurant (albeit in a strip mall) on a Saturday night, we were greeted by longtime John Whalen manager Kim Kessler, whose warmth immediately made us feel welcome.
She ushered us into the booth, but not before gracefully lifting both corners of the tablecloth. Seconds later our server, Kelly, came to our table, introduced herself and took our drink order. No sooner had we asked for water than it magically manifested behind her, delivered by a busser. Soon something will go wrong, I thought. Yet nothing much did.
Our server not only knew the wine list by heart, but also could describe most wines to us in detail. (A rare event, even at the best restaurants.) Freshly opened that night, the Cartilage and Brown ($6) was buttery, cool and the perfect pairing for the Raw Bar shrimp and oysters ($5.50 for four pieces), Crab Cake ($8.50) and Garlic Mushrooms ($6.50) we chose as our appetizers.
The Garlic Mushrooms were some of the most remarkable I've ever had. Sautéed and simmered in a white wine garlic demiglace, and graced with mozzarella cheese, they were reminiscent of a very decadent but thoughtful French onion soup. We ate all of them, and I believe my dining partner even reached his hand out to grab them when the server attempted, for the third time, to take them away.
The Crab Cake was one of the meatiest I've ever had -- more jumbo lump crab, less bread, which was heavenly. It put more emphasis on the natural flavor of the crab, however, and less on the savory mustard, paprika, onion and Worcestershire sauce I've come to expect from a good crab cake. Still, I appreciated the heavenly apricot brandy sauce (though scant) that finished it.
The freshness of the Raw Bar shrimp and oysters was surprising. Our server had warned us that this is the way it would be. "Sometimes people," she said, pausing to draw a deep breath, "are shocked by the freshness of our fish." I imagined hoards of people passing out after eating blackened salmon. While that didn't happen to us, it was definitely a "we're-not-in-Kentucky-anymore" moment.
The Raw Bar could have been even better if the shrimp had not been sitting on ice long enough for the water to have melted and seeped into it. "They should be snappy when you bite into them," my dining partner said. "Instead, they're a bit soggy." Yet they still had some crunch.
For our entrées, we ordered Cashew Crusted Halibut ($20.95) and the special: rolled sole stuffed with crabmeat and breadcrumbs ($26.95). While the taste of the fresh Halibut was reminiscent of its name (haly for "holy") and the texture simultaneously dense and flaky, as it should be, the flavor lacked flair. Dressed only in drab cashew and Japanese panko crumbs, what could have been beautiful was a bit underwhelming. (Think Ellen Page in her 2008 Oscar dress -- this is the closest I can come to describing the incongruity.)
The fresh rolled sole, however, was delectable, stuffed with the flavorful crab cake we were seeking earlier.
While the sides left me a bit confused -- my dining partner got haricot verts while I got country green beans that seemed to have been cooked with a ham hock all day, as well as mashed potatoes that had a bit of a papery off-taste -- the freshness of the seafood might be unmatched. The outstanding service and laid-back, sophisticated vibe made up for any oversights.
John Phillips is highly recommended for a summer date night: great food, complete with live music in the bar and drinks for dessert.
JOHN PHILLIPS RESTAURANT & BAR Critic's Pick
Go: Crestview Hills Town Center, 2809 Dixie Hwy., Crestview Hills
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bar is open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood emphasis; vegetarian pastas