Of course, there’s tons of pressure when you’re one of the top restaurant names in Baltimore, and you’re opening up a new concept that’s completely different from your other venues. For co-owner Tony Foreman, the stakes are high. After all, his high-end restaurants Charleston, Cinghiale, Pazo, and Petit Louis have consistently garnered praise and awards, including numerous “Best Restaurant” nods from this magazine. This time, the high-energy restaurateur, along with business partner/chef Cindy Wolf, crafted his newest place, Johnny’s, as a casual neighborhood spot, where diners can stop by to nosh on breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a convivial setting.
That, it accomplishes in spades, especially in Roland Park, where everyone seems to know one another. Just try to get a parking spot at dinnertime—or a table in the dining room. It may be time for the restaurant to reconsider its no-reservations policy.
While there was seating available in the cafe area on one of our visits, we had to wait more than half an hour to score a prized location in the nicely appointed subterranean warren of brick rooms, fashioned with plaid carpet, Chesterfield banquets, and zinc-topped tables.
We didn’t mind waiting at first. The whiskey bar in the front space is fun and jovial. We just wish the cute ice-cream-parlor stools had more support. Sitting there for any length of time is a challenge for the sturdiest of backs.
The initial rumble about Johnny’s questioned the merits of the food and portion sizes. We’re happy to report that the West Coast cuisine, influenced by Pan-Asian and Mexican ingredients and overseen by executive chef Kiko Wilson, meets all our taste requirements, including presentation. The servings for some dishes, though, are on the meager size.
We indulged in several selections from the “snacks and sharing” list and were impressed with the crunchy spring rolls bursting with julienned veggies with a sweet-chile-ginger dipping sauce and the flavorful lamb emapanadas. But the tiny morsels are bite-sized, and at $1.75 and $2.50 each, respectively, quickly boost the bill if you order several to fill your appetite. The delicious roasted-pumpkin dip with spiced pepitas, guajilio salsa, queso fresco, and fresh tortilla chips was a more economical table share at $5.50.
The carefully edited dinner specials are reasonably priced and hark to diner comfort food. Among the seven options, the succulent sesame-fried-chicken breast with a colorful corn relish and Asian slaw achieved success on many levels. The bacon-wrapped meatloaf was another good choice with three thick slices of moist ground beef and pork topped with mushrooms and red-wine gravy. A downside was an unremarkable mac ’n’ cheese.
We also liked the fish tostada, featuring mahi mahi one evening, and its profusion of cabbage, black beans, cilantro, corn relish, and house salsa verde, displayed prettily on a crispy tortilla.
The salads—from black & bleu to maple baked salmon—are available as is or as wraps with fries or Asian slaw. We recommend getting the slaw as a side sometime during your meal. Its soy-ginger vinaigrette is addictive. Sandwiches take a creative approach with the likes of a BLTA, the “A” being avocado, and a whopper MEGA cheeseburger stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon. All are available for dinner as well as lunch.
As you’d expect, desserts are homey, including treats like apple pie and freshly made cookies. We celebrated late-fall flavors with a gingerbread cupcake, swirled with cream-cheese frosting and lemon curd. While luscious, the diminutive cake was pricey at $4.
On two evenings, we had the same waiter, which was unfortunate. He spoke so quickly when reciting ingredients that we couldn’t capture all the nuances. And there were long gaps in service, though that could have been the kitchen’s fault. But, in one case, we had to search for him to get our check.
Our service didn’t get much better when we stopped by for breakfast one day. After our food arrived, we had to wait for our waitress to finally check on us to ask for pepper and orange juice. Faulty service is unusual at a Foreman Wolf restaurant.
But the coffee barista was sweet and enthusiastic, discussing the merits of using a Chemex coffeemaker (fuller body, less acidity) at the restaurant. We left sated with house coffee, brewed to order; a farm frittata (broccoli, bacon, and jalapeño cheddar, on this visit); and The Chicken and The Egg, a noble sandwich with house-made chicken sausage, a sunny-side-up egg, pepper relish, and roasted tomato.
Foreman has definitely achieved his goal of creating a community gathering place. The food hits the mark. And the surroundings are lovely. With just a few tweaks with portion size and service, we’re confident that Johnny’s will soon join the ranks of its all-star siblings.