First-time diners at Michael John’s (regulars refer to it as MJ’s) Bradenton brasserie might be in for a shock since this classy—and pricey—restaurant is tucked into a down-at-the-heels strip mall on the outer fringes of the gated Carlton Arms apartment complex. But once you’re inside, MJ’s looks like a quaint French country restaurant, with art and racked wine bottles adding the right ambiance.
As in most fine-dining restaurants, MJ’s has the requisite table- cloths, cloth napkins and servers in French film-like uniforms of black shirts and trousers for men, and a kind of Audrey Hepburn Sabrina outfit of black leggings and black jersey with ballet flats for women. The service, however, was decidedly not the stereotype of French dismissiveness. In fact, the waitstaff was so pleasant, they were another reason to become a regular here.
The lighting is low in the two dining rooms; thankfully, servers who think you may need help reading bring pen flashlights to the table with the menu. Diners—mostly Bradenton families and senior couples—also enjoy the acoustics. There is a background buzz of conversation, but you can talk at the table and not have to shout.
While it’s French inspired, MJ’s is not slavish in its respect for French classics. An example is the escargot that comes in a casserole dish without the shells, puddled in a rich, seasoned creamy sauce (rather than with garlic butter). Unexpected, but delicious at $13. Another riff on what’s customary is the French onion soup, which at MJ’s is sweeter than the classic, with large slices of onion thickening the stock. No croutons on top under melted Gruyere cheese (too bad), but instead there are several pieces of fresh baguette on the side ($8).
To start, we enjoyed our amuse-bouche, a flavorful creamy chick-pea and bacon soup served in a demitasse cup while we perused the wide-ranging menu. Mussels in garlic and white wine broth is a signature dish that chef/owner Michael John Auer proudly serves, and it’s done in a traditional French way. The Maryland crab cake is pure coastal American but enlivened with red chili aioli ($13).
Entrées average about $30, and many are served with potatoes and a melange of fresh vegetables. They are not overcooked but arrive full of natural color and a bit of bite. If you’re in the mood for French, try the raspberry and port wine-glazed duck ($29) or the cordon bleu served with a mustard sauce made with honey and a bubble or two of champagne ($25). The simple (and yet hard to find) pan-seared calf liver with a tangle of roasted onions and mushrooms won’t disappoint ($22).
It’s the steak portion of the menu that sends the prices upwards. A 22-ounce ribeye finished with house garlic herb butter is $65 and even a small six-ounce filet mignon is $29. With steaks there are several sides to order separately (in the $7 range); they include the expected fries, sautéed mushrooms, onion rings and grilled asparagus. But Asian slaw or garlic roasted Brussels sprouts or Parmesan potato gratin could take you off the main road. There’s a vegetarian plate ($18) that varies depending upon what’s seasonally fresh.
Michael John’s has an enticing wine cellar with individual glasses as well as bottles that range from $30 to $395. But within the range of $30 to $45, there’s an encouraging selection of French, California, New Zealand and Italian bottles worth pairing with steak, seafood or French dishes.
Desserts are house-made, and there are usually four or five to choose from at about $10. Pineapple upside-down cake was a surprise, and chocolate lava cake (which will be on steakhouse menus for eternity, I guess) is served with vanilla ice cream. We took home the pot de creme au chocolate and ate the dense and decadent dessert the next day, picking off the fresh raspberries before sending a spoon deep into the chocolate ganache and cream. A sweet reminder that we wouldn’t mind returning to MJ’s to be well fed and well treated.
Michael John’s French-American Steakhouse | 1040 Carlton Arms Blvd., Bradenton | (941) 747-8032 | Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Closed on Sunday. Full bar; handicapped access; reservations advised. Parking in mall lot.