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Everywhere you go downtown, you'll find restaurant owners eager to admit, "Those NBA players? Whenever they come into town, they always eat here. Why, just the other day I served Shawn Kemp!" This may or may not be true, but there is one restaurant that I know the big men frequent. I've seen them enter, and I've seen them leave with smiles on numerous occasions. That would be JW's Steakhouse, in the lobby of the Salt Lake Marriott, where Jazz opponents often stay.

I decided to try it, not because NBA players are noted for their refined palates but because I wanted to see what kind of a culinary impression Salt Lake gives to its out-of-town visitors. Whether they play basketball or not, a decent number of Marriott guests eat in the hotel's restaurant.What I discovered was basically a mixed bag. Some of the food was exceptional and worth a return visit even from a local. Some of the food was painfully disappointing, however, and I found myself hoping that the guests who eat in the hotel's signature restaurant know what's good and what's not. It would be a terrible reflection on Salt Lake if they didn't.

I'll clue you in, positives first. The ideal meal at JW's would be to start with JW's Steakhouse salad, for $2.95. It's an assortment of crisp mixed greens, chopped tomatoes, grated carrots and sweet fried onion crisps, drizzled with an unpretentious herb vinaigrette. It's a decent combination. Salads and side dishes do not come with your entree; they must be ordered separately.

I'd then move along to the main course, the best bet being one of the restaurant's many cuts of beef. Protein and red meat are in again, you know - many people are advocating their use in weight loss, if you can believe that. Anyway, JW's steaks are served with their own Madeira-laced herb butter steak sauce, applied while the steak is sizzling hot so it melts with the natural juices. It's really quite good and doesn't violate the meat's integrity, as so many bottled steak sauces do. Although the menu suggests you order additional sauces like green peppercorn, bearnaise or country-style mustard, they would be superfluous on these already well-seasoned cuts. Beef entrees run from $13.95 for 10 ounces of prime rib, to $22.95 for a 22-ounce porterhouse.

Although the entrees are served with a smattering of vegetables like a small broiled tomato, a carrot or two, perhaps a small lump of spinach, I would strongly recommend ordering one of the side dishes, especially "JW's Hashed Brown Garlic Potatoes," for $2.25, which are absolutely rapturous if you're a garlic lover and aren't planning on any romantic interludes in the next few days. The potatoes are served with parmesan cheese, green onions and an aggressive dose of garlic that our kind server warned us about. I found myself craving them the next day, perhaps because their taste was still lingering.

Top off your heretofore heavy meal with a light dessert, perhaps the fresh strawberries in Godiva chocolate sauce, with a dollop of whipped cream, for $3.25. They're heavenly.

Now, for the items to shun. First on the list would be the daily bisque, for $2.95. We tried the lobster, which had the predominant savor of salt and was reminiscent of reconstituted bisque-in-a-box. And where did that pumpkin color come from? Also, don't be deceived by the "Escargot in creamy garlic butter, served in a multi-grain bread bowl," just because you can have it for the reasonable price of $5.95. You're paying about a buck-fifty per snail, and they come in more of a salty gravy than garlic butter. They're served without a flourish, in a graceless, flavorless, hollowed-out wheat roll, which read much better than it was presented.

And as for avoidable entrees, we tried the mixed grill, for $20.95, which included a grilled chicken breast, dry, bland and eeeeek! - prefrozen! In addition, there were two unmemorable grilled garlic shrimps, and a small, overcooked filet mignon. We also tried the "Rack of Lamb Provencale," for $17.95. Although it had been frozen as well, the meat itself was tender and tasty. Too bad they had to overwhelm it with that infuriating dijon sauce and all those insipid bread crumbs that regret-ta-bly detracted from the meat.

JW's is a relatively small restaurant, and the ambiance could be described as modern hotel lobby elegant. The help is as friendly, professional and attentive as you'll find anywhere. The Marriotts have always emphasized service. All in all, not a bad place if you know what to order. Heed my advice and enjoy.

Rating: * * *

JW's Steakhouse, 75 S. West Temple, in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, 531-0800. Open Monday through Thursday 6-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30-11 p.m., closed Sundays. Checks, credit cards and reservations are accepted.