If you eat out in Baltimore with any frequency, you know Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf, if not by name, by the company they keep. Beginning in 1995, the restaurateur and the chef have fed Charm City tastes of the South (Savannah followed by Charleston), France (Petit Louis Bistro), the Mediterranean (Pazo) and Italy (Cinghiale).
In October, the business partners added another accent to their landscape: Johnny’s, a 100-seat restaurant in Roland Park with a West Coast vibe and a coffee “auteur” flagged on its menu.
“Johnny’s is the restaurant I wish was around when I was a kid,” Foreman says. His fifth establishment, near Petit Louis, is meant to be a neighborhood amenity where folks can drop by a few times a week for something (take your pick) comforting, healthful or “exotic.”
If one of you is in the mood for a grilled cheese sandwich, another wants fish and a third wants something Latin American, the response here is yes, yes and si. Sound like a mishmash? With Johnny’s, Foreman says he’s channeling the restaurants he visited as a 20-something entrepreneur in California’s wine country, where he recalls that even casual kitchens served hybrid menus reflecting the Asian and Hispanic cooks who prepared them.
If the menu category called “snacks and sharing” were set to music, diners would be grazing to the tune of “It’s a Small World.” Truth in advertising: “Little” tacos are two bites that you wish lasted longer; the warm tortilla cradling carnitas — thinly sliced meat ignited with Thai chilies and lime — are especially good. Fluted empanadas filled with sweet ground lamb make compelling finger food, as well. Roasted pumpkin dip is a great idea served too cold; only when it warms up can you enjoy the pureed squash set off with queso fresco and a frame of tortilla chips. Better is a whip of black beans spunky with cilantro and fresh lime. Johnny’s chicken satay could pass muster in a Thai restaurant. The skewers of grill-singed chicken arrive with a peanut sauce that dances between heat and sweet with every swab. Butternut squash soup distinguishes itself from like-flavored bowls out there with its airy consistency and coconut milk.
The face behind the food is Kiko Wilson, 27, who hails from Guam, studied cooking in Seattle and spent the past five years executing small plates at the aforementioned Pazo. Her boss refers to the tight quarters in which she and her team work as a “submarine kitchen.” Tables near the open stage allow diners to hear what it takes to run a busy kitchen — as much barking as a dog park on a busy night.
Even more sound effects come with an order of fried chicken. It’s a continent of breast meat in a super-crisp coat of cornmeal and sesame seeds that sounds like Paul Bunyan walking on gravel with every bite. Propping up the bird is a savory torta of sliced squash and potatoes alternating with cream cheese intensified with sage and Parmesan.
The good times don’t roll nonstop here. Bacon-wrapped meatloaf sounds like a no-brainer. But where’s the beef flavor? Johnny’s grilled cheese sandwich, based on “Wonder” bread baked at sibling Pazo and oozing cheddar, looks Mom-approved, at least until we flip it over and discover its (way too) dark side.