Johnny’s Half Shell: 3 stars, Excellent
Change is grand. Just ask restaurateur John Fulchino. Along with chef and business partner Ann Cashion, he reopened Johnny’s Half Shell in Adams Morgan last month after a decade of serving crab cakes and politicians on Capitol Hill.
“It was a tough 10 years,” Fulchino says of their time in a part of town he says he didn’t understand when he and Cashion relocated the original seafood-themed Johnny’s from Dupont Circle. “I was naive.” The cyclical nature of business on the Hill meant busy weekdays but crickets on weekends and whenever Congress was away.
Oh, and another thing: The way customers used the old Johnny’s, it might as well have been a meeting hall that happened to serve meals. Don’t get Fulchino started on all the untouched food that went back to the kitchen after speeches or fundraisers. “They didn’t understand the nuances of Ann’s cooking or my music,” says the restaurateur.
Adams Morgan, the team’s new-old turf, feels familiar and comfortable. Fulchino and Cashion operated an American restaurant there, Cashion’s Eat Place, from 1995 to 2007, eventually selling it (along with the name) to veteran employees. When Cashion’s went dark in May and the space came available, Fulchino and Cashion jumped at the opportunity to return to their old stomping grounds.
Nostalgia wasn’t the sole lure. After years of decline in Adams Morgan, there’s “a different tempo,” says Fulchino. “We feel it’s on the upswing,” thanks to restaurants including Tail Up Goat and a forthcoming hotel, the Line. Expected to open early next year, the property will feature restaurants from Erik Bruner-Yang of Maketto acclaim and Spike Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
Enough background. You probably want to know what to eat. The easy answer would be “just about anything,” but the effort put into the menu deserves more elaboration. Dining at the new 80-seat Johnny’s is a reminder of what a fine chef the city has in Ann Cashion, whose work on the Hill got lost in a dining room that could pack in 400 people. In order to feed a crowd that size, or anything near it, attention was paid to moving plates as opposed to extra niceties. And when that occurs, says Cashion, “food becomes less delightful.”
The first course I always want seconds of is the squid. It tastes better here than at a lot of other places because Cashion buys fresh squid and cleans it herself before throwing it on the grill, zapping it with chilies and lemon and arranging it with arugula and a dusting of fried shallots. Other crackerjack springboards include zesty barbecued shrimp on a pool of cheesy grits, oysters on the half shell (duh) and a fritto misto of buttermilk-dunked, flour-dusted vegetables that salute the season. There’s more. Seafood stew brimming with mussels, shrimp and squid in a broth laced with saffron is an ode to the Chesapeake.
Cashion pretty much serves exemplars of whatever she makes.
Her crab cake, whispering of mustard and Old Bay seasoning, is a near-perfect dish. The cake is sweet, fresh, mostly Maryland (soon to be Gulf) crab. Sharing the plate are coleslaw with welcome crunch and french fries with true potato flavor. My one nit? The entree’s restrained portion size. I’m not a guy who goes for monster helpings, but I’m not on Weight Watchers, either. More, please?
There’s nothing showy about Cashion’s cooking. Her reserve speaks volumes. It’s as if all she wants to do is cook to make you happy. Slips are few and easily fixable, like too many olives on an entree of silken cod. It can’t hurt that Cashion’s sous-chef, Jorge Rubio, has been with her an amazing 17 years, no small run in an industry known for burning through talent.
Lighter than its predecessor, the new restaurant summons the original Johnny’s on P Street NW, which means there’s an aquarium on display and an abundance of blue in the color scheme. (Looming from on high is the illuminated Cashion’s Eat Place sign, which Fulchino originally hung outside in 1995 just as his and Ann’s moms showed up for the opening.) The expansive Table No. 1, facing the open kitchen in back, is gone. Taking its place is a four-stool oyster counter, which is where I encountered a little bowl of oyster crackers with green freckles. The bar snack is courtesy of the chef’s mom in Mississippi, where she tosses oyster crackers with dill and oil for a treat that’s all too easy to inhale.
While the setting whets an appetite for meals from the sea, the kitchen is equally adept with ingredients from the land. Consider chicken, offered as an appetizer (garlicky grilled wings with a bright tarragon dip) and entree (braised chicken ramped up with late-summer peppers). The most expensive dish on the menu is also one of the restaurant’s finest: grilled rib-eye. Forty bucks gets you a one-pound slab of marvelous dry-aged beef from New Frontier in Virginia — and puts some of the city’s steakhouses to shame with its profound flavor. Gracing the glory when I tried it were green beans and tomatoes punched up with anchovies (sadly gone, along with summer’s green beans).
Chess pie and chocolate angel food cake have been part of the Johnny’s script forever, and they never get old. The pie, garnished with fresh mint, is restrained in its sweetness and served with a tuft of whipped cream; the cake comes on a pool of caramel sauce, of which none remains after I have my way with it.
As this review was headed toward publication, the chef called with the news that she was expanding her menu to include hits from the original Cashion’s Eat Place. Visit now and you’ll find curried mussels in spinach and potatoes Anna, among other additions.
An old brand in a new home, Johnny’s Half Shell sparkles as never before. If my own experience is any sign, the plates are going back to the kitchen licked clean.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at email@example.com.
1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-506-5257. johnnyshalfshell.net.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $6.75 to $14, main courses $16 to $40.
83 decibels / Extremely loud.