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KJ’s Fresh Grill: Seafood, steaks and a whole lot more at unique eatery

By Staff | Apr 29, 2016

KJ’s Fresh Grill, at 10950 S. Cleveland Ave., may be on the cutting edge of the future of restaurant design.

A first impression is one of spaciousness, cleanliness and simplicity of design. You may also have the sense that you have stepped into an earlier era of quiet sophistication, an art-deco era evoked, perhaps, by the half-moon shape of the booths, and the blue lights accenting a bar with a white stone backdrop, against which the decoratively arranged liquor bottles glow in candy colors.

At KJ’s, music is a hand-picked blend of old and new favorites, the conversation is at a comfortable level, and the big screen TV over the bar is audible only to the people at the bar. The atmosphere is best described as seductive.

The owners of KJ’s, Kerry Joan (KJ) and Warren Frye, came up with this unique retro/modern ambiance concept, along with their menu, by observation of both the good and the bad in restaurant design and operations over some 30 years of restaurant experience. Warren, a native of Kentucky who grew up just outside of Pensacola, worked his way up from teenage dishwasher to multi-unit manager of restaurants across whole states with chains like Red Lobster, Chilis and LongHorn. His expertise, and passion for the business, for its energy and its unending variety of day-to-day challenges, are balanced by the cool and calm of Kerry’s artistry and by her woman’s instinct for creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to everyone.

Kerry, who was born in NJ, met Warren in a dentist’s office in Memphis, Tenn., when he was working for Chili’s. “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out,” she laughs, “in walks the love of your life.”

In the first seven years of their marriage, Warren Frye pursued his restaurant career across many states until, in 1999, the Fryes moved to Florida. A friend had been urging them for years to join him in opening a Beef O’Brady’s franchise. Agreeing that, with two children, it was time to settle down, they moved to Cape Coral and opened the Beef O’Brady’s on Pine Island Road. Two years later, they opened another on Del Prado. By this time, Kerry was actively participating in the business as a bookkeeper and when needed, in the kitchen as a cook. “I love it. It’s fun. I liked bonding with the guys back there.”

This past February, with the economy recovering nicely, they decided to open their own restaurant. Warren loves the steak business, but wanted neither the outdated and predictable steakhouse cowboy theme on the one end, nor the gentleman’s club theme on the upscale end of the business. That’s where Kerry stepped in. As the Fryes are also seafood lovers, KJ’s Fresh Grill would have not only the freshest seafood and beef available, but also a fresh new look and ambiance.

Warren has culled the best practices for maintaining high and consistent standards in restaurant operations. Unlike the corporations which own chains, the Fryes are in their restaurants greeting and getting to know their customers, as well motivating the staff to achieve higher standards of service. Above all, KJ’s goal is to maintain chain-restaurant pricing while serving higher quality food. “We get a lot of comments from customers saying they’re sick of chain-restaurant food,” says Frye, so at KJ’s, steaks are choice beef, wet-aged three to four weeks, hand-cut and trimmed to the highest specifications for maximum tenderness, and the seafood is flown in fresh.

The most popular menu selection after their steaks, say the owners, is the calamari appetizer. Lightly floured and fried calamari is tossed in an Asian teriyaki sweet sauce with candied cashews. The tender and flavorful gator tails from Louisiana are also a big hit. Tenderized, lightly floured and fried, they are served plain or “bang-bang” style.

By far, the two most popular entrees are the prime rib and the cobia. The herb-encrusted prime rib is rubbed with KJ’s own blend of spices and fresh herbs, injected with a beef-broth marinade to infuse the whole cut with the flavors of the crust, and roasted for four to six hours. You could cut it with a spoon.

Cobia is a local fish of firm texture and excellent flavor seldom found on restaurant menus. The Fryes serve it lightly seasoned and grilled with the tropical freshness of a mango-pineapple salsa, although you can order it blackened or fried, if you prefer.

Another beef favorite and the most popular sandwich is the millionaire hamburger. The beef is a blend of 100 percent choice chuck and sirloin, and stacked with bacon that iscandy-coated with a bourbon glaze to give it extra flavor and crunchiness. KJ’s also offers a portobello-mushroom burger infused with a portobello-mushroom marinade. It’s served with beef gravy splashed with Fat Tire beer.

The Fryes have also creatively developed vegan recipes that taste so good everybody loves them. A perfect example is the crab cakes. The “crab” is actually hearts of palm mixed with flaked Nori seaweed wraps to give it its seafood taste, and finished with a tangy remoulade sauce that is a mix of soy-based mayo with lemon juice, soy sauce, red peppers and onions. The remoulade is also a healthy and delicious alternative to butter on baked potatoes.

Everybody’s favorite dessert is the homemade bread pudding with rum sauce. Kerry got it from one of those simple little recipe cookbooks that church groups in country communities used to put out to raise money for their churches. KJ’s bread pudding is out of a Germantown, Tenn., cookbook.

As evoked by the Tennessee bread pudding, an unintended theme of wholesome Americana seems to run through KJ’s menu. The sweet and tangy sauce for the Heather’s meat loaf is from a Boy Scout den mother’s recipe in western New York, and the camp fire brownie dessert with cinnamon ice cream and toasted marshmallows on top might be right out of a scouting cookbook.

An unusual feature of KJ’s is the availability of two rooms off the main dining room for private parties, events or business meetings. The Captain Tom room, named after Kerry’s father, can comfortably accommodate 25 people. A calm sophistication pervades the room. The minimalist dcor of white stone walls with only a wireless Apple TV for PowerPoint presentations on one wall and a wall-mounted, simulated gas fireplace on the other, promises a haven for men and women who need a place to gather for anything from business meetings to event-planning to art classes, like KJ’s popular Wine and Canvas event.

Rosemary’s Room, named after Kerry’s mother, can accommodate 50 people for private parties, dinners or larger meetings. Bring your own slideshow screen for any occasion. Menus, with pricing, are custom designed for your event.

Although KJ’s is a cut above the cookie-cutter predictability of chain restaurant food, clamorous atmosphere and hurried service, it is welcoming to everyone. Whether you want to dress up for an anniversary dinner or drop in on your way home from the beach, KJ’s 20 draft beers, craft cocktails, happy hour every day until 7 p.m., 50-cent martinis on weekends, and food that is anything but the “same ole bar food,” is one of the new, best places to be.

And all because of the chance meeting 22 years ago of a dental assistant and a patient in a dentist’s office in Memphis, Tenn.

For more information, menus, and customer reviews, visit KJSFreshGrill.com, call 239-275-4745 or find the restaurant on Facebook.