Fans of the Esquire Club can now enjoy the same Friday night fish at a new sports bar on East Washington Avenue.
At 70, the North Side restaurant is one of Madison’s oldest, and part of that longevity has to do with its popular fried and baked fish.
In mid-March, owner John Kavanaugh III’s son, John Kavanaugh IV, opened LJ’s Sports Tavern & Grill, a $779,000 restaurant on the ground floor of the new Galaxie building.
It’s named for the younger Kavanaugh, who goes by Little John, and who owns the new place with his wife, Sarah Kavanaugh, and Jim and Patricia Kinney.
The main bar area is all tall tables and TVs. There’s also interesting seating behind the bar at a separate counter, which Kavanaugh refers to as a “floating bar.” A side area offers lower tables with padded leather chairs and big windows that provide a wonderful view of Breese Stevens Field. And there are good views of the TVs no matter where you sit.
A first visit was underwhelming, but passable. A second trip — for the fish fry — was much more rewarding.
On that initial visit, the club wrap ($10.95) with turkey, ham, crunchy Applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, chopped tomato and mayo was fine, but didn’t stand out. It came with a choice of side, and the cottage fries were great, light-colored, ridged and perfectly salted.
LJ’s Godfather salad ($12.95) was given prominence on the menu, but came out looking lifeless. It tasted fine with its nice combination of greens, cavatappi pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, crushed walnuts and that same well-cooked bacon. The creamy house dressing, a blend of poppy seed and Parmesan peppercorn, only improved it.
The main disappointment, and what kind of turned us off to the place, was my daughter’s Kraft mac and cheese ($5.95), even though she didn’t seem to mind. “I don’t have a problem with Kraft,” she said. She got a choice of side, and chose cottage cheese. Her meal also included a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Kavanaugh said he serves Kraft because it’s what kids like and want.
My return Friday visit was better, not only for the fish, but for the bar’s spinach artichoke dip and pulled pork Cuban sandwich.
The dip ($9.95), served in a cast-iron skillet, wasn’t gratuitously creamy, and really showcased the spinach and artichoke hearts. It came with small pieces of toasted pretzel bread, celery and carrots.
The Cuban ($11.95) featured a smattering of pulled pork, thick-cut ham, cheddar cheese, chopped red onion, pickles and mustard, between buttery, grilled wheat bread. The fact that it had cheddar instead of Swiss didn’t lessen the enjoyment of the sandwich. It was supposed to come on a pressed French roll, but the sandwich bread worked well.
We chose clam chowder for the side, and while it held plenty of clams, it was much too thick. It tasted like it came from a can, but Kavanaugh told me otherwise.
The fish was where LJ’s really impressed. Our waiter, who was exceptionally helpful and endearing, returned to our table to ask if we wanted our fish baked or fried, even though we had ordered the fish fry. Under further consideration, we decided on the baked Icelandic cod ($13.95) and were served a fillet of giant proportions. The fried version uses smaller pieces of fish, Kavanaugh said.
Before the fish arrived, our waiter brought out a big cup of too-creamy coleslaw, and delicious, thick-cut, soft rye bread. And strangely, a small plastic cup of drawn butter that would have made more sense if it had shown up with the fish. Pats of butter were in a bowl on the table already.
The fish was puffy, flaky, and perfectly cooked. The only misstep was the potatoes au gratin we ordered as our side. It was a generous portion to match the fish, but the chunks of potato were swimming in a bland cheese sauce.
My companion didn’t complain about the potatoes, and was delighted with everything. Always looking for a decent fish fry or bake, he was pleased not only with the quality of LJ’s fish, but with the price, the service, and with the way the tables were spread out.
“Usually, when you go to a fish fry, you are crammed in. But here, there are a fair number of people and you feel like you have space,” he said.
Before we visited, he had read some Facebook comments, and afterward said, “I’m suspicious of these reviews, several of them said it was overpriced.”
A brandy Old Fashioned ($5) was also reasonably priced and hit the spot.
For dessert, there was just Key lime pie ($4.95). It had a perfectly crumbly crust, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, and was a fine way to cap a successful meal.