Every restaurant has a soundtrack – not the music you hear piped through the speakers, but the song that plays in your head when you think about the place: “Gone with the Wind” for that favorite steakhouse that closed a few years ago, “The Way We Were” for the romantic French bistro where you had a memorable onion soup – and an amazing first date, “That’s Life” for the hole-in-the-wall Szechuan joint where things ended poorly a few months later…

At JP’s Bistro on Woodford Street, I kept hearing a Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer tune: “Accentuate the Positive.”

There’s plenty positive to say about JP’s. It’s an appealing, warm and friendly neighborhood restaurant, and it’s tucked unobtrusively into a row of shops off the main drag so you feel as if you’ve walked into a local gem. The dining room is small, with nine tables squeezed into a compact, brick-walled space, plus two more high-tops in the bar area near the kitchen. The signage out front is so understated you may wonder if you’ve come to the right address. And it’s welcoming; JP’s has some of the friendliest and most helpful wait staff in town. Patrons here feel at ease and at home, and there’s no pressure to finish your meal or clear out for the next group of customers.

Still, Johnny Mercer notwithstanding, it’s hard to “eliminate the negative” at this Rosemont favorite: Dishes can be pricey and disappointing, with many of them too enthusiastically sauced or overly seasoned. It’s possible to start with a delicious cup of soup and end with a memorable sweet, but the in-between requires thoughtful navigation.

The printed menu at JP’s is straightforward, with about eight appetizers and 10 seafood or Italian-inspired entrees. But on two different visits, the wall-hung blackboard had another 15 entrees plus eight more starters. (A friend of mine took one look and said, “There’s a whole lot going on here, isn’t there?”) The waiter on Visit 1 came over to explain that the kitchen is more than happy to prepare special dishes or accommodate special needs. “Feel free to ask about anything you don’t see on the board tonight, or substitute an ingredient you prefer.” JP’s works hard to please.

I started with chicken, sausage and white bean soup ($6), a nicely balanced, full-flavored cup of broth crammed with white meat chicken, ground sausage, dark spinach and a few tubes of pasta. (I never found the beans, but didn’t miss them.) The soup shows what JP’s can do with fresh ingredients and some restraint. I’d go back just to enjoy another bowl and a hunk of the excellent, crusty bread they serve from Sorella’s Bakehouse.


Unfortunately, pistachio mussels ($12) were a letdown. The serving was large – easily big enough for two to share as a starter – but the mussels themselves were small and dry. (I half wondered if they were called pistachio mussels because the meats were miniscule? I later learned that chef John Paul Gagnon – the JP in the restaurant’s name – throws a few pistachios into the pot toward the end of cooking.) There was a generous ladle of white wine-infused broth on the bottom of the bowl, and the bread on the table was primed for a dunk, but that broth was salty in the extreme. I enjoyed the bread with butter instead.

The terrific waiter recommended a special pasta entree with scallops, shrimp, calamari and a gorgonzola sauce ($28), so we tried that. This shell fish was beautifully prepared – the scallops just cooked through and deliciously sweet, the tail-on shrimp moist and tender – but the sauce was very rich and, again, overseasoned, as though the chef had forgotten that Gorgonzola has an unmistakable bite and is emphatically salty. I was glad the waiter suggested ordering this special over half pasta and half spinach, because that lightened the dish somewhat. Still, the delicate flavors of the seafood disappeared beneath the aggressive sauce. And I kept reaching for my water glass.

My guest tried the ribeye with bourbon sauce, and it confirmed a recurring theme. While the steak was obviously well grilled, the accompanying bourbon sauce overpowered it – this time with sweetness instead of salt. I wish we’d tried the plain, 14-oz. ribeye on the standard menu ($19) instead.

By now I was confused about how to characterize the evening at JP’s. (Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” kept running through my head.) The atmosphere was soothing and the crowd relaxed. We could sense, from the demeanor of the staff, the pleasure they took in caring for customers. We were having a pleasant time and – judging from the laughter all around us – so were our neighbors. (Gagnon, who has degrees from Johnson & Wales in Providence, says he brought many of his longtime customers with him after moving here from the now-defunct Sully’s, which was in Morrill’s Corner: “They’re loyal, and they won’t let me pull some of the longtime specials from the board.”)

But what about the food?

JP’s deserved another try.


Visit 2 was a repeat of Visit 1: excellent waitress, inviting ambience, well-paced service – but again a few dishes that missed the mark. Crab cake starters ($10) on the menu were filling, but they tasted primarily of seasoned bread crumbs. Scallops Andrew ($26) did a fine job of showcasing scallops, but the kitchen added chunks of Maine crab, slices of mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, garlic and buttered breadcrumbs. My friend’s words echoed in my ears: There’s a whole lot going on here.

My favorite plate was Chicken Campagnola ($18), a blend of sautéed chicken and sausage served over linguine. The chicken was moist and flavorful, the thin slices of sausage sweet and deliciously juicy, and the white wine sauce simple and light. Extra-wide shavings of cheese (the waitress described them as “a blend of asiago, parmesan and romano”) on the plate were – literally – over the top, but the dish was still a winner.

Two visits, three appetizers and four entrees later, I was left with one question: Could JP’s nail dessert?

In a word, yes. Crème caramel bread pudding ($8) made with challah suspended in a velvety custard was eggy, pleasantly sweet and delicately sauced. There was just enough caramel at the bottom of the bowl for two of us to fight over. J.P. makes the bread pudding himself (a waitress makes several other desserts on the menu, including the excellent carrot cake), and it’s spot on.

So what tune best describes JP’s popular bistro? I’ll stick with Arlen and Mercer’s anthem. There’s ambience and comfort to appreciate and enjoy. The service is stellar and the welcome genuinely warm. And if you focus on simpler offerings, you can appreciate the kitchen’s strengths. So, go ahead. Accentuate the positive. Latch onto the affirmative. Don’t mess with mister in-between.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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