WE DO A LOT OF menu browsing online to find likely targets for our dining excursions, particularly when we're heading out of our immediate area. Such was the case on a recent Sunday afternoon when we decided to head to Concord.
We were looking for someplace casual, fairly inexpensive and, most importantly in this case, open on Sunday evening. So it was that we came across EJ's on Main. We liked the brevity and mix of its menu, the prices, and fact that we could get there without having to rush.
Only after we finalized the choice did I notice that EJ's is located in downtown Concord's Holiday Inn. Immediately, second thoughts set in. Were we setting ourselves up for disappointment? Would we end up ripping the place? In a town full of good restaurants, is a hotel restaurant worth visiting if you're not staying at the hotel?
The answers: No, no and yes.
EJ's is indeed the house restaurant at the Holiday Inn, down a winding corridor from the lobby. Inside, it could be located in Anytown USA. Plate glass windows offer a view into the parking lot and North Main Street beyond; booths line two walls and a long, two-sided banquette with tables for two runs down the middle of the room. A large oak bar is against one one wall.
The restaurant's most distinguishing feature, a huge brick pizza oven and its prep area, dominates the far end of the room. Clearly, with that kind of investment in infrastructure, pizza is an important part of EJ's existence, so we decided we'd make sure to try it out.
But it hadn't been the pizza that caught our eye when we found EJ's menu online. It was the variety of salads and the small but appetizing selection of entrees. It's probably not the most imaginative menu you'll find in downtown Concord, but it's several steps above what you'd expect if you equate chain-motel restaurants with freezers and microwave ovens.
The Dining Companion is a beet lover from way back, and whenever a beet salad appears on a menu, she's all over it. EJ's beet salad ($4.95 for small, $8.95 for entree size) featured mixed greens, goat cheese and almonds with a tart balsamic vinaigrette. The beets themselves weren't out of the ordinary — not gold, not grilled, just plain sliced beets — but the combination was tasty, textural and delicious.
My warm spinach salad ($3.95/$7.95) was simple but equally good — a pile of baby spinach leaves, topped with cherry tomatoes, caramelized red onions and warm bacon vinaigrette. I'll take the sweet/sour combination of the onions and the vinaigrette, coupled with the strong smoky bacon flavor, over a typical spinach-salad raspberry vinaigrette any day.We decided that we'd order a small pizza and a regular entree, both to share. For the latter, we chose the Grilled Shrimp and Scallops ($17.95), which was served with risotto and sauteed green beans.
The shrimp and scallops (three of each) were lightly seasoned with a touch of herbs, and lightly grilled. The shrimp were tender, the scallops just cooked through. They were drizzled with a balsamic reduction, which added a nice counter to the seafood's natural sweetness. A touch more seasoning would have been good overall. We're not risotto experts, but this was creamy and rich, and a good choice of starch to accompany the seafood. The beans were cooked just right; a touch of brown, nicely buttered with still a bit of crunch.
The pizza — we chose Applewood Smoked Chicken ($14.95/$17.95) — was as good as any we've found at specialty brick-oven pizzerias. The crust appeared to be hand-formed, with the trademark scorch marks you'd expect of a brick-oven pizza. Our 10-incher was loaded with chicken slices, along with the same caramelized red onions and smoky bacon that were so much a part of my spinach salad. It was excellent, and it made me think of our Teenage Bottomless Pit, and wonder whether he was enjoying his dinner at college as much as he would have enjoyed this pizza.
Our only disappointment at EJ's was with the desserts. TDC chose the Lava Cake ($4.95). Its chocolate intensity was great, and the texture of the cake itself was good, but there was no "lava" — none of the gooey warm center that gives the dish its name.I chose apple crisp (also $4.95). TDC turns out a mean apple crisp, and this didn't come close. Most of the sweetness came from the apples themselves; the crumbly oat topping, which should be buttery, sweet and rich, was pretty bland.That disappointment aside, we were very happy with our experience at EJ's. The food was good, the service was prompt and friendly, and the prices were reasonable: Our three-course dinner for two, with one glass of wine, came to under $65.
Would EJ's be our first choice in a town filled with good restaurants? Maybe not, but it exceeded our expectations and we wouldn't hesitate to stop again if we were on I-93 and needed a quick, quality, reasonably priced dinner.