Tom Sietsema: Johnny’s in Baltimore is a hybrid diner where everyone is at home


Diners enjoy the sprawling new space at Johnny's in Baltimore. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 20, 2013

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.

My go-to dinner picks reflect the menu’s span. If I want to splurge, I slice into the hanger steak, blushing slices of beef flanked by a handful of terrific “fat fries.” If I slacked off at the gym, I’m inclined to fish for something else. A barge of baked salmon on a heap of sauteed edamame, bok choy and apple slivers — enough shades of green to populate a paint fan — manages to be both hearty and light. Back to splurges, the fish and chips — cod in a shattering tempura served with a rousing tartar sauce — reels in another hit.

The servers at Johnny’s are sweet and smart, but they need to finesse their pacing. Half the time my food comes out so fast, I could be done with my meal in 15 minutes if I didn’t have companions to stretch out the occasion. Pulled braised beef brisket fueled with a hoisin barbecue sauce and piled on a toasted baguette with pickled carrots deserves more leisurely study.

Following multiple restaurant trends, Johnny’s does not serve a bread basket, forgoes reservations, bakes cupcakes for dessert and prefers naked tables to covered ones. But the setting is an original. To the right of the entrance is a cheery cafe with a counter displaying pastries under glass cloches, the ideal spot for a stack of pancakes in the morning or a slice of cake later in the day. To the left is a warren of rooms wrapped in foundation stone (think catacombs) and dressed here and there with mounted deer heads: speak-easy meets university club. The wine cellar at Johnny’s abuts the one at Petit Louis, which “makes it a lot easier to run between restaurants on a rainy night,” Foreman jokes.

Speaking of liquid amusement, Johnny’s bar does well by classic cocktails. Margaritas are tangy, gimlets deftly balance gin and sweet, and Manhattans are ... why, yes, please, I’d love another. The only disappointment on the sips front is the clunky stemware for wine, which suggests the purchase of a college freshman rather than one of the region’s most savvy wine purveyors.

The all-American, California-leaning wine list embraces producers familiar (Rabbit Ridge, Concannon) and lesser-known; focus on the latter for the most value. One of the more versatile whites is the 2010 Palmina Honea Vineyard Arneis from the Santa Ynez Valley ($38). From Washington state comes the substantial 2009 Okanogan Estate Pinot Noir ($45). One of Virginia’s best reds is the 2010 Linden Vineyards Claret ($56).

Dessert is spelled out on a small chalkboard that your waiter holds in front of you while he pitches the sweets. The small cupcakes frosted with what tastes like Crisco do not explain the nation’s appetite for the confection, but the buttermilk chocolate cake makes you happy to have ordered a wedge, and if pineapple tart is an option, bite. The combination of caramelized tropical fruit topped by rum-kissed coconut ice cream is a seductive one. Coffee is prepared to order in sleek, hourglass-shaped glass (Chemex) flasks. The house pour is Brazil Daterra Gold, light in color but rich in body and only $3 for the pleasure.

Customers may wonder who inspired the newcomer’s label. “My name is John,” says John Anthony Foreman. But “my father is John,” too, he adds, as are an uncle and assorted nephews, which is why he goes by Tony.

Johnny’s was rolled out for its neighborhood, but why should locals have all the fun? The restaurant at its best makes strangers feel like honorary residents.

★★

(Good)
Johnny’s

4800 Roland Ave., Baltimore. 410-773-0777.johnnysdown
stairs.com.

OPEN:
Breakfast 7 to
11 a.m. Tuesday through Friday,
7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday
and Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

PRICES: Breakfast dishes $3 to $14.50; snacks $1.75
to $12; lunch sandwiches
and salads $8.50 to $16.50; dinner salads and main courses $11 to $23.

SOUND CHECK: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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