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Eats and Drinks

Johnny’s Be Good

Casual Foreman Wolf spot a welcome addition to Roland Park

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele


Johnny’s (4800 Roland Ave., [410] 773-0777, johnnysdownstairs.com) is what Roland Park has been craving: a jolt of espresso in the morning to wash down a densely flavored but diminutive pastry; a juicy burger and milkshake, or soothing glass of wine at a marble-topped counter when you don’t feel like cooking; a casual place to meet friends sans reservations (and due to its expansive space, presumably without an eternal wait).

It isn’t just the fare we’ve been longing for, it’s recognition of a neighborhood that can really use fish tacos and pancakes. Roland Park is, after all, more than ladies who lunch or couples who step out for a fancy French meal when the mood strikes—more than harried parents who pop into Starbucks after morning drop-offs or who graze Eddie’s deli case for a last-minute supper.

In fact, the latest from the auspicious team Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf flatters us with this professed diner that is so much more.

Johnny’s has taken over the site once occupied by the Roland Park Deli and a real estate office in the historic Roland Park shopping complex—near another Foreman Wolf property, Petit Louis. It’s divided into two discrete areas, one a high-ceilinged, light-filled cafè that would be perfectly at home in Berkeley. The coffee bar here tenders single-origin brews and such concoctions as the $6 “Star Fleet Captain,” espresso infused with Earl Grey tea and lavender, topped with a swirl of steamed half-and-half. It’s a nice place to dig into a stack of red-velvet pancakes with pine nuts and caramelized honey butter or the daily frittata, a baked egg dish with sausage or cubes of squash.

The second area, below street level, resembles a Sonoma wine cave: dimly lit, with banquettes and nickel-clad tables, walls upholstered in stitched leather, the brown, patterned carpet—1960s chic or Howard Johnson’s lobby, depending on your own memories.

The menu has many of the usual suspects: a burger and fries, a BLT, grilled cheese. There are even dishes featuring Cheez Whiz and Wonder Bread. But lest you think the place is stocked by an 18-wheeler from Sysco, note that those brand names reflect more irony than nostalgia. Neither Foreman nor Wolf—owners of four of the city’s peerless eateries and early players in the farm-to-table movement—pine for that highly processed stuff.

The whiz here is liquidated white farmer’s cheese with a bleu-y bite, drizzled on a burger ($11.75) or served in a ramekin alongside salty fries. And the “Wonder Bread” is actually baker Carrie Goltra’s chewy slices of white from the Pazo ovens.

The burger itself is juicy beef from a local farm, and the fact that Roseda is one of the few vendors acknowledged on the menu signals that Johnny’s doesn’t need to trumpet sources. The canning jars filled with tomato sauce and jams stacked on shelves above the coffee bar; the thick, fresh yogurt with the breakfast muesli; the fact that tortilla chips come with roasted pumpkin dip ($5.50) instead of guac all signal seasonal acuity.

There’s just one menu for morning, noon, and night; weekday breakfast service ends at 11 A.M., when the lunch list kicks in, continuing into the evening. The handful of dinner specials are only available after 4 P.M.

The back side of the menu lists wine, beer, and cocktails. The beer list is tight—all bottles—and with the exception of two Mexican brews, all from the U.S. (though they range from Vermont to Hawaii). Wines are likewise domestic, hailing largely from California with a few from Maryland, New York, and even Michigan. There’s also a decent selection of mostly small-batch whiskeys and other spirits—including gin from Maine and Catoctin Creek Rye (made in Virginia).

Chef Kiko Wilson’s New American cuisine is California-influenced, with fresh ingredients and bright flavors drawn from Asia and Central America. Appetizer bites, for example, priced per piece, include tiny spring rolls stuffed with shrimp or mushrooms ($2) with a chili-ginger dipping sauce. Tiny tacos ($3.50) on soft corn tortillas, each good for a bite or two, are filled with chicken, fish, or meat, with shredded cilantro and a squeeze of lime.

Sandwiches include the BLTA ($8.50), with sliced avocado and tomatoes roasted in the oven, and egg salad ($8.75) laced with tarragon and served on dark rye studded with flax seeds.

The entree list has a pork chop ($19) flavored with both hoisin sauce and jalapeño, and a fish tostada ($19), flaky white fish with black beans, sauteed greens and corn salad (the kernels stuck together as if it had just been scraped from the cob). The fried chicken is a tender white breast crusted with a thick coating of heavily salted panko and sesame seeds, resting on both Asian slaw—julienned vegetables in a ginger dressing—and corn salad. The fish and chips ($16) is fresh merluza flashed in a crisp tempura batter that leaves nary a spot of grease.

The menu isn’t extensive, but it nevertheless covers a lot of territory, from the familiar to the trendy, local to more far-flung. Like film producers, Foreman and Wolf work hard to arrange their restaurant settings so visiting one of them tends to be as much about culture as food. Johnny’s may not be a set on the order of, say, a Barry Levinson diner, but it’s a damn good fit for Roland Park. ?

Johnny’s serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday through Friday, and brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday.

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