Foreman Wolf wants Johnny's to be an everyday destination for the folks of Roland Park, a place they can show up at, on a whim, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And they have been.
Johnny's is the fifth restaurant from Baltimore restaurateurs Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf. The hits from Foreman Wolf, as their company is known, just keep on coming — Charleston, Pazo, Cinghiale and Petit Louis, which is Johnny's neighbor in the Roland Park Shopping Center.
And Johnny's sure is good looking. Carved out of an expansive space on the lower level of the Roland Park shopping center, the main dining rooms are symphonies of wood and stone, comfortable and inviting, with acres of booths and banquettes and elbow room between tables.
And there are things, like a fried chicken breast and elegantly prepared fish tostada, that I'd order again and again. Breakfast, taken in a separate cafe space, is a nourishing and superbly satisfying lineup of wholesomely prepared pancakes, French toast and egg dishes. They're ideal fare for a casual joint.
But casual is harder than it looks. Johnny's, early on, is like a soprano singing pop tunes on the Tonight show. You can admire the talent without completely enjoying the performance.
I appreciate the menu's excursions into California-inspired cuisine, which encompasses both Mexican and Asian attitudes and ingredients, from the coconut in the butternut squash soup to the homemade salsa verde on the succulent tostada. Food is prepared and seasoned well. The fried chicken, a Cindy Wolf recipe, is a marvel of crispy skin and juicy meat. Bacon-wrapped meat loaf medallions have great, natural flavor. The mahi mahi in the tostada — the fish changes from day to day — was particularly brilliant.
But there are things that feel out of place, or even pretentious, in a supposedly casual joint. The liquor list is expensive and overly refined. So you can't, for instance, get a Tanqueray and tonic. At breakfast, brewed coffee is made to order in Chemex, which makes, maybe, for a better cup of coffee but costs four bucks.
Some folks just want their regular gin and worse coffee cheaper.
The menu's format is troublesome, too. I don't like being presented an all-day single sheet that lists items not available when I'm there. The majority of the menu, consisting of snacks, soups, sandwiches and salads, is available for lunch and dinner. But the breakfast items are offered only until 11 a.m. (later on weekends), and the dinner items, seven in all, don't kick in until 4:30 p.m.
There are issues with portions and pours. Sometimes, as with appetizers of spring rolls, lamb empanadas and savory taco appetizers, there's just not enough on the plate to make an impact. One or two bites and they're gone. At lunch, a combination half-sandwich and soup looked forlorn. The pours on the liquor and wine appear to be at best scientifically exact.
Most of these things, I'd wager, are part of the Foreman Wolf feeling-out process. None of the company's other restaurants are now what they first were. Always, there's been an evolution, and almost always positively.
There have already been a few changes. The roasted pumpkin dip that was so bland when I ordered it a few weeks ago now comes with a guajillo salsa, which is a step in the right direction, but I wish the pumpkin itself was given a kick. The tasty spring rolls, filled with either shrimp or beef, were tiny when I first ordered them. Now, they're small, and cost less.
It might turn out that Johnny's is ahead of the curve on the portion thing. Many diners tell me they'd rather pay less for more modest servings. And we may all have been spoiled by our favorite bartenders. But for now, there's a hmmm factor.
More changes are needed. I expect an adjustment to the cafe space, separate from the other dining rooms, which gets uncomfortably loud when it's full of lunch patrons. The service is generally up to Foreman Wolf standards, but drinks from the bar are taking too long to get to the table. The "Farm Cobb" should be served as composed salad and not a bunch of things in a bowl.
There's always a tension at the Foreman Wolf restaurants between customers' expectations and the restaurateur's desire to elevate the dining experience. I think that's interesting. My gut tells met that Johnny's won't be the same six months from now. I'm curious to see how it all turns out.
Rating: ** 1/2
Where: 4800 Roland Ave., Roland Park
Contact: 410-773-0777, http://www.johnnysdownstairs.com
Open: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$12, Entrees, $17-$19
Food: California-influenced everyday fare
Service: Informed and professional
Best dishes: Sesame fried chicken breast, lamb empanadas
Children: No children's menu but family sightings are common, especially in the cafe
Parking: Limited parking on the lot, with additional street parking
Noise level: Comfortable in the dining room, clattery in the cafe
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]