They say the third time's the charm, but in this case, there was nothing charming about our most recent visit to BJ's Brewhouse in the Portofino Center. We don't write up every meal we have at a restaurant, but some reviews are just asking to be written - even if only to serve as a warning to others. You see, we ate at BJ's for the first time at their invitation; they wanted to work out the kinks of being brand new when they held their soft opening and invited members of the community to eat on their tab. It's a generous thing to do, and because of it, we tried to not judge them too harshly; even though at the time we were not impressed with the food or the service.
Several months later, figuring they must be rocking and rolling by now, we tried them again, this time for lunch. Sadly, again, we were disappointed with the food and the service. The manager on duty that day expressed his apologies and offered to comp our meal, asking that we please come back and give them another shot. It was his professionalism in handling what had been a bad experience that gave us the motivation to return once more... albeit a year later, but we did return, nonetheless. So the other night when looking for somewhere different to eat, we decided to give BJ's another shot. It turned out to not be our best decision of the day.He Said
First of all, you have to realize we arrived about 8:00 PM on a Tuesday, hardly a "peak" time for any restaurant. Out of the 60-70 tables in the dining room, only a few were occupied, and the hostess seated us in the section where most of the other patrons were already seated. And a few moments later she returned to seat yet another party in the same immediate area. And within five minutes or so, yet another, larger party at a nearby table; maybe all of the other sections were closed for the evening. We had plenty of time to observe all of this because after being seated, a server had yet to approach our table, despite our seeing at least a half a dozen or so scattered throughout the dining room including one that was working the two tables on either side of us. When the hostess came back for the third time, we stopped her and asked where our server was, she explained she was really busy (you think?!?) because she had "picked up" several other tables. We asked her how many servers were working in our section to which she replied that there were three; but we had only seen the girl taking care of the tables to either side of us as though she was the only server in our section. As it had been more than 10 minutes since being seated, we asked the hostess to please find us a manager, with the intent of asking to be seated in a less-busy section. We watched the hostess go and speak with the manager, then return and seat yet another couple in our section. Within about five minutes, the manager came to our table, and we shared with him what we had observed, which he acknowledged as a "mini-slam" of customers and stated that he would have another server pick up our table. The issue with Server #1 being in the weeds was resolved - or so we thought.
When we finally got to place our order, I'd settled on a "Nutty Brewnette" (no pun intended towards my auburn haired dining companion), which is an American-style brown ale. A blend of four different dark malts contributing to a flavor profile that is sweet with "nutty" notes, according to the flyer. We started with the Santa Fe Spring Rolls ($9.25), which were crispy spring rolls filled with chicken, black beans, fire-roasted red peppers, cilantro, sweet corn, jalapeños and Monterey jack cheese. These came served with Santa Fe dressing and avocado cream sauce, the latter of which was our preferred complement to the appetizer. Knowing our meals would eventually arrive, we tried to not eat all of the spring rolls, as the serving is enough to share between three or even four people - but they were actually pretty good.
I was in the mood for a steak, so I ordered the newly featured BJ's Classic Rib Eye (12 oz. $17.95), listed on the menu as a "Premium Angus Steak," served with a choice of two sides; I opted for a baked potato and steamed broccoli. Granted that BJ's isn't a steak house and we try to not compare one place to another directly - let's just say that we don't suggest anyone go to BJ's for the steak. I had ordered the steak cooked medium - what I received was a steak that was well done on one side (shown) and not done on the other. You may notice in the photo that the steak is not very thick which leads me to think that the cook (there is no chef at BJ's) was not paying very much attention to the preparation of said Angus slice. Now don't get me wrong here, the Rib Eye wasn't in-edible, but it was clearly cooked incorrectly and didn't taste good; did the kitchen think I wouldn't notice in the dark lighting at BJ's? How is it supposed to work in a dimly lit restaurant? Are we supposed to have that much faith in the cook that we don't need to see what is on the plate, or is it simply better to not know what is placed before you? "Just shut up and eat it!" I like to be able to see what has presented before me prior to eating; I'm just saying...
Trying to get past my disappointment in the thin, unevenly cooked steak, I asked Server #2 to have it replaced with a burger instead. BJ's offers a Black and Bleu Burger ($9.95) described as blackened beef, bleu cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, roasted garlic aioli and tomatoes - but I wasn't sure I'd like the aioli, so I asked for just a regular cheeseburger, with a blackened patty, and pepperjack cheese; nothing I haven't done before at other restaurants, generally with great success. Apparently we had walked in to "Stump the Staff" night as this became a fiasco of outrageous proportions. Server #2 disappeared and presumably placed my order, and then I was asked again several minutes later by Server #3 to repeat the order, 'just to make sure he had it right' - but judging by the fact that it took yet another fifteen minutes or so to get the burger to the table, it's our guess the original burger order may have never actually been placed or ordered incorrectly or (insert your best guess here). The servers want to be impressive I suppose by not writing down the orders at the table and instead, attempt to commit them to memory... Somewhere in the course of this circus act, Server #3 promised us a free dessert, 'on him' to try to make up for everything we'd been though, because Server #2 was now out for the night. When the manager returned with the burger - which still wasn't right, by the way - he in turn offered us a dessert - but when we explained that Server #3 had already taken care of that, he seemed surprised to learn we had a third server, as he had not assigned multiple servers to our table, and it is not BJ's policy to do so.
My beverage of choice for the evening was the Berry Burst Cider, a wine cooler-ish malt beverage that reminded me of Cherry 7-Up, light and bubbly, and not too alchohol-laden. I'd been wanting to try a deep dish pizza at BJ's (the main thing that people seem to like) ever since that first sample way back when during the soft opening. But since it was so late for us to be eating dinner, I opted instead to try something lighter and ordered the Margherita Fresca ($8.95) flat bread pizza from the appetizer menu for my meal. Because it was my meal, it was of course brought out with his steak, and when it arrived, the flatbread was crisp without being cracker-like, the cheese nice and melty, and the fresh basil only slightly wilted, therefore an overall attractive pizza. The flavor was really pretty good; I liked the sweet tomato sauce and the Parmesan added a nice saltiness to it. Honestly, though, by the time the next forty-five minutes had gone by trying to get him a meal he could eat, the last few pieces had become soggy and unappetizing, which would probably explain how I managed to leave the leftovers in my car overnight. I just wasn't looking forward to eating them the next day.
Having already passed the two-hour mark we were honestly ready to just leave, but we still couldn't seem to pin down our server (was that #2 or #3?) with our check, which as it turns out he (Sever #3) didn't bring by until after having brought the aforementioned complimentary dessert (the correct way to do so). Arguably the best part of our meal, the Triple Chocolate Pizookie Made With Ghirardelli was really pretty tasty. I say arguably because he liked the Spring Rolls more than I, and I'm the bigger chocolate fan. The rich chocolate cookie made with chunks of Ghirardelli chocolate comes warm from the oven, topped with double chocolate ice cream with Ghirardelli chocolate chips and a Ghirardelli dark chocolate Square. It was good, but we were full, and tired, and wanted out of there - we ate a couple of bites each while waiting for the check which took longer still to arrive.
In good form, the manager removed the charges for both the steak and the burger. He did stop by one last time to apologize for all the confusion of the evening, and once again blame it on the "mini-slam" of customers that arrived shortly after we did (though, throughout our meal the party beside us whom had been there when we arrived had complained to one another about the dismal service as well) and the "large crowd" that had been at the bar before we arrived (which had wrapped up and left about thirty minutes into our visit) which made us wonder if he sincerely felt bad or if making excuses just came with the territory.
A brief recap of our 'experience' at BJ's - Easily 10 minutes passes before Server #1 greeted us (includes her passing by with no comments). Initial drink order taken - two beer samples, Berry Burst Cider and ice water. Server #1 returns to section five minutes later with ice water and drinks for tables other than ours. Hostess comes and goes with new seatings - another 10 minutes goes by, manager arrives, Server #1 arrives with beer samples and Berry Burst Cider, still no ice water. 3 - 5 minutes later the newly appointed Server #2 arrives, takes food order and returns with ice water... finally. Santa Fe Spring Rolls arrive in about 10 minutes, followed by the BJ's shoe leather steak and the flatbread pizza. Everything appears to finally be back on track. Cut to the arrival of Server #3 - he informs that he is taking the table over from Server #2 who has finished his shift, he removes the rib eye steak to exchange it for a burger and fries. During this time, Server #2 magically appears back at the table and informs us that he is still working and had not left; he was just doing his closing shift duties. He leaves with the burger order fresh in his mind (or so we thought). Server #3 returns later to 'confirm' the order which then either actually starts or maybe just restarts the cooking process of the yet to be delivered cheeseburger. The burger finally arrives, dessert is consumed and the long awaited check followed by our exit (none too soon). Total time elapsed: two hours, twenty minutes.The Wrap-Up
We'd love it if this type of service was the exception and not the rule at BJ's, but researching for this write-up we visited other blogs, Urban Spoon and even Yelp, and were somehow not surprised to find, sadly, this is more often than not the norm at BJ's. We'd love to sit in on their training sessions (assuming they actually do have them) and try to discover just where their customer service goes so far off the rails - especially after having attended the soft opening and being told the staff had been in training for several weeks in advance. Sure, there's turnover in any restaurant over two year's time, but the service seems to have started off from too low a standard to have much hope. The food was mediocre at best, nothing worth dealing with that much headache to dine upon. And even if you're only going there for the beer, remember, it's not actually brewed on-site as it is in their original California locations - here in Houston, it's brewed under contract by St. Arnold's Brewery. And while St. Arnold's make a fine product, how can anyone be certain it's the same experience as the original BJ's Beer?
In conclusion, we really can't recommend BJ's Brewhouse & Restaurant in the Portofino Center. There are too many other dining options in The Woodlands for a good beer, a great steak or an awesome pizza.