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Bigger Isn't Always Better
A D.C. seafood house relocates, and loses some of its splash

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 19, 2006

** Johnny's Half Shell

400 N. Capitol St. NW

202-737-0400

www.johnnyshalfshell.net

Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Metro: Union Station. Free validated parking at dinner. Prices: appetizers $6.50 to $11, entrees $16 to $28. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $70 per person.

If you have a sweet tooth, you're going to cheer the "new" Johnny's Half Shell. The popular seafood restaurant moved across town over the summer -- from its cozy digs in Dupont Circle to the sprawling space previously occupied by La Colline on Capitol Hill -- and in the process added a pastry chef to its ranks. No routine baker, Valerie Hill distinguished herself for six years at Majestic Cafe in Alexandria, where her nostalgia-inducing coconut cake and buttermilk pie inspired NASCAR-esque devotion. Hers were the kind of finales that dared you to leave crumbs and that demanded you come back for more.

They still are. In keeping with Johnny's tradition of simple, unfussy cooking, the desserts celebrate the familiar. Banana cream pudding -- topped with an elegant tuft of meringue -- makes an appearance, along with a lovely apple crumb pie treated to golden lashings of cider sauce. As at the original, ice creams run to such velvety textures and appealing flavors as fresh ginger. With every bite of Hill's fluffy coconut-passion fruit layer cake and free-form chocolate napoleon, I'm reminded of her penchant for extracting maximum pleasure from few but fine ingredients. Her creations are like little black dresses, always in good taste.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the menu. Fans of the first Johnny's will be reassured to sit down to many of the same options -- oyster po' boys at lunch, fritto misto at dinner and grilled squid anytime -- though their execution on the Hill has been less consistent. As much as its namesake, John Fulchino, hoped to retain the neighborhood character of the seafood joint he created in 1999 with chef Ann Cashion, some facts get in the way: The business has swollen in size, from 60 to 300 seats and from 1,800 square feet to 10,000, and with the extra space comes the need for more hands on deck.

"Our goal was to move the Half Shell, not open a new restaurant," says Cashion. While she and Fulchino brought their entire 45-member crew over from Dupont Circle, they also recruited a lot of new blood to support the venture, and it shows. The grilled squid that I overindulged in in seasons past now tastes too much of smoke, and the halibut might spend far more time than is best for it on the stovetop. "Where are the soft-shells coming from?" I asked a server one night. "Venezuela," she misinformed me.

Reminders of the good ol' days surface in an order of chicken wings, their seasoning something Buffalo might envy, and each meaty bite improved by a dunk in a ramekin of cool, pale green herb dip. A platter of raw oysters resurrects happy memories, too. There are usually three or more varieties to slurp, and they're presented on crushed ice, glistening in their juices and neatly shucked. All you get from the display is the pure and fragrant taste of the sea. Fried oysters are almost as good (frankly, I'm partial to the lightly pickled vegetables that garnish the first course). Cashion reminds us of her Southern roots -- and of Johnny's on P Street NW -- with every spoonful of licorice-colored gumbo, crammed with bites of seafood, chopped celery and rice, and seasoned with woodsy filé powder. The heat of the dusky Creole classic comes through, but not at the expense of the other flavors in the bowl.

But where's the punch in the "barbecued" shrimp (and any discernible sign of asiago cheese in its grits)? The seafood is carefully cooked but blah; it could use bolder seasoning. Johnny's once-vivid seafood stew finds a pretty still life of mussels, squid, shrimp and fish arranged on tender cubes of carrots and celery, but they don't get much support from the broth, which tasted like watered-down orange juice, and appeared to be missing its promised tomato, fennel and basil the last time I tried it.

Food this subtle needs a counterpoint to keep it interesting -- a sprinkle of sea salt, a lively sauce -- but that's not always forthcoming from this kitchen. That overcooked halibut was lapped with a brilliant piquillo pepper sauce that had all the zip of a zucchini. A diner could always count on nice soups and salads at the original; the new restaurant dispenses an underseasoned eggplant and red pepper soup, and a roasted squash salad that is flat despite its apple cider sauce.

Cashion is a good food director, known for casting just the right side dish or garnish opposite her leads. Johnny's mostly-crab crab cakes, as light and luscious as ever, come with a sprightly tartar sauce and a slaw of julienned vegetables that looks undressed but is in fact moistened with a sassy vinaigrette of red and rice wines. Offered into early October, soft-shell crabs are simply sauteed and paired with a bursting-with-corn pudding that is so delicious I was tempted to order more crabs for another taste of vegetable. But crab imperial loses points for a heavy crumb topping and a plate of frigid, undercooked green beans.

The menu acknowledges meat eaters with a beef filet (dig the marrow) and a po' boy with flavorful (but too few) slices of roast beef tucked between halves of a gently crisp roll. The sandwich comes with a bag of Zapp's thick-cut potato chips, made in Louisiana. Nice touch.

I'd return to Johnny's just to sip. The owners clearly want their customers to drink well, offering a thick list of wines that go beyond the usual -- three rosés by the glass, half-bottles that include the rare Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel blanc (made mostly from roussanne), and banyuls among the dessert pours. And they tickle the fancy of wine geeks by printing the names of importers alongside the labels: If Kermit Lynch or Robert Kacher is importing it, I want to try it. The choices from Europe are especially appealing, in terms of both variety and value.

The owners have also done an admirable job of turning a tired French restaurant into a bustling seafood purveyor, carving the place into four separate areas, one featuring an intimate alcove; the last evokes the semi-private booths at Tadich Grill in San Francisco, one of the owners' sources of interior inspiration. The new Johnny's suggests the old in its tiny tile floors and cream-colored walls -- And look! The aquarium is back behind the bar! -- but a walk around the place reveals just how large a chunk of land the restaurant covers. You may need a map to get to the bathroom.

The intimacy created by low ceilings and tight seating was part of the original's charm. At full throttle, however, the relocated restaurant could pass for Legal Sea Foods. And the service is like the cooking: mixed. The waiters in their crisp white jackets are either of the calm and collected steakhouse school, or wide-eyed and harried. To its credit, Johnny's puts plenty of managers on the floor, including the affable Fulchino.

Bigger isn't better at Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill. Not yet. But maybe bigger will get smoother as the staff adjusts to its new home. All I can promise right now is really good slurping, really good drinking and desserts that leave only smiles in their wake.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.

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