Food review: MJ Pizzeria. Warning: Hyperbole, With a Dash of Negativity…
When I anticipate a new place, you can be sure that I enter with both high hopes and the expectation that I will not be disappointed. For quite some time, we’ve discussed the pending MJ’s opening, when we might be able to go, and just how much salivation might occur during our first visit. We were looking forward to it, in other words. Perhaps it is because I fully expected to be outrageously satisfied that I left feeling like I saw Santa’s beard droop while he was passing out presents, recognizing that Saint Nick was in fact my Uncle Jack as he handed me a package of socks. Remember, a review can only encompass what one experiences – I wanted to love everything about it. Money should buy a similar experience one day compared to the next. While I’m no food critic, I never shy from loving a place or singing its praises. Conversely, when I try a place fully expecting to be amazed and yet depart with my head hung low (like a Cowboys fan, for instance), you can be sure that I’m being honest. I might exaggerate or pontificate, but my review is no less accurate.
I’ll give the pizza crust and cheese an A+. It’s easy to see that the owner is shooting for quality in this arena. MJ is aiming toward an eclectic selection of pizza toppings. Don’t expect Domino’s as you look over the choices. But don’t be surprised if there are things to choose from that you would have never thought of in the same sentence as pizza. That’s a good thing or bad, depending on your expectations and the size of your appetite.
As for the salad, other reviews have pointed out the consternation of seeing such a haute cuisine presentation of “Big Caesar Salad” arrive at the table. I finally know what my wife looks like when she is so puzzled and surprised that her brows point almost vertically in reaction. Given that there are no pictures on the menu, you can only imagine my idiotic look when the waitress brought us the culinary equivalent of an orchid to our table. It was a sheath of romaine in a potato crisp holder. The waitress could have told us it was not substantive in order to minimize the shock. Yes, I know that this is indicative of fine dining. But on the other hand, this particular place is indeed located next to a massively popular liquor store and behind a gas station. $9 for such a visual pleasure but gastronomical anomaly was a bit excessive. There will be people of great hillbilly persuasion other than me gracing this place with their presence– and they will not understand that a joke is not being played upon them if such a presentation is both offered and charged to them. My wife felt hoodwinked by a “Big” Caesar salad which was neither big, nor really a salad. The average diner wants a more traditional salad. Keep the quality and lose the presentation on this one. Few will appreciate that it is “supposed” to be served as if the Count Deschene would like it that way.
Even though we went when it was less busy, it was too hot inside and in combination with unusually-placed and staged seating, the environment was both awkward and almost not suitable for relaxing adults. . (Figure out better seating. No one wants to sit next to someone unless there is at least 2 feet between the edges of the tables. It kills intimacy and makes me feel like a commodity number when I’m too crowded.) Had we been dressed like wayward hipsters we might have felt more comfortable.
Our incredibly simple salad took long enough that it arrived only momentarily before the pizza, which caused some confusion on the part of the helpful waiter who brought the pizza to us instead of our waitress. We then had to flag down another person for both a plate and cheese. My wife wanted to flag down some nonexistent staff member to ask if we were being secretly filmed and tested. The parmesan cheese grater was literally behind me, but I controlled my urge to grab it and start shooting cheese in every direction.
Meanwhile, I distracted myself by unavoidably hearing and watching the person in charge aggressively discuss placement of prep and cooking scenarios with the staff. I don’t want to see or hear management redressing staff when I’m trying to enjoy food, especially if I am paying more than average for the privilege. I had no choice, though, because booth availability is less than you might imagine and as a result my wife and I sat precariously perched at a very small table against a pony wall only inches away from a high table behind us, very near the bar seating along the prep and kitchen area. The manager barked several times at staff. (Yes, I know that MJ’s is a higher class of food and that the owner has a lot of experience in restaurants. However, as a person of large girth, I have more years of experience dining – and distinguishing what I find appealing in my choice of dining.) To be clear, unless there is a direct food safety issue involved, such as staff using my pizza crust as an outdoor Frisbee or moths in my tea glass, I don’t want to see staff being barked at while I’m eating. I know that it’s dangerous to characterize what I saw, given the expected “It wasn’t so bad” argument. But being so close to the staff before, during and after the boisterous complaining by the owner, I could well see the dismay and unease they felt, as they knew they were on display and with no means to salvage their dignity. I’m not saying the owner was mean per se, but I am saying that a couple of the workers expressed their displeasure and unease non-verbally. As a human, I saw that they felt a little shamed. I want to see management, not hear them.
The waitress didn’t offer us alcohol or desserts, even though I’m certain she had to have overhead me telling my wife that the dessert reputation was exceedingly high. (I had heard great things and expected to be delighted.) Given the lackadaisical service, I decided that her lack of enthusiasm either meant that I looked like a starving hobo who wasn’t worthy of a dessert of after-dinner drink – or that she had been horrified to find that the dessert tray had just been chewed by a raucous squirrel when she went behind the prep area – and she was looking out for my welfare. Given her lack of interest, I didn’t see any point in arguing to get a dessert. We abandoned plans to sample the cookies, sorbet or cake. It seemed as if the customers were outnumbered by staff, which normally would be ideal. The ratio, however, didn’t result in better service at all. My wife had to ask for a drink refill, a plate to eat with, and cheese. The bill, however, arrived so quickly that we looked outside for a DeLorean, or Marty McFly lurking nearby.
I left a stellar tip, which I paradoxically often do after being disappointed. Doing gives me the ability to criticize with a clearer conscience. But I didn’t leave with that feeling of accomplishment one has after eating a fine meal at a place which you would expect to be your future “go-to” place to eat in the future. My wife and I shared barbs with one another as we drove away, making humorous scenarios and with me doing the voices of the owner and those behind the prep area: “Aaargh – I said LESS romaine fronds, you nitwit,” or “We need MORE plates obstructing the view of the bar, all the while making your area to work less comfortable and more likely to cause a floor-shattering cascade of dinnerware. These people want pizza AND ear-shattering opportunities to laugh!” And, “Take those irritating $ signs off the printed menus. How are they going to know we are aiming toward quality if you put decimal points or dollar signs on them? Jeeeshh!!!”
MJ’s has a massive drink menu, far exceeding the scope of the food menu. If you want to sample a huge variety of alcohol (and why wouldn’t you?), this establishment has just what you would like. Sit at the narrow table of your choice, fork and knife in hand, after putting in earplugs, and drink to your heart’s content.
There is a slew of competition to MJ’s. It will do well, though, all my commentary aside. In combination with the owner’s reputation and location, I know that there will be no shortage of sacrificial lambs who will shout that this place is a cleverly-disguised Nirvana. I will give it another shot at some point in the future. For now, however, if I’m craving delicious pizza or pasta where I know my comfort and service will be matched by a high level of quality and selection, I will go elsewhere. Northwest Arkansas is too well-situated with fine eating places to need to feel obligated to grant second chances automatically.
If you are on the fence about trying MJ’s, go in and order a simple pizza, no appetizers, no desserts, and a drink that you already know. Go when it is not busy and when you are not in a hurry. Don’t bring anyone with you who uses words like “city folk” or “y’all.” (Their brow will be burrowed nonstop trying to understand what is going one…) This will greatly improve your chances of a better experience. Whatever you do, do NOT order the “Big Caesar Salad” – unless you want to have a good laugh as you pull out your wallet.