Last year, Johnny's in Roland Park added a sushi bar five nights a week, causing a few heads to shake in wonder. While the fish preparations were glorious, it seemed like an odd offering for an American restaurant.
The Japanese specialty didn't last long — it disappeared at some point along with the former chef. In March, David Garcia Reyes became executive chef and a co-owner of Johnny's.
Reyes is a longtime employee of the Foreman Wolf restaurant group, which operates Johnny's and several other restaurants, including Charleston in Harbor East and the original Petit Louis Bistro, Johnny's neighbor in the historic Roland Park Shopping Center.
The chef, who has done cooking stints in Italy, France and the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, came to Charleston as a line cook in 2006 and worked his way up to chef de cuisine.
Reyes has already made an impact on Johnny's menu with dishes like a smoked salmon pastrami appetizer and a pan-roasted duck gumbo. He plans a more seasonal, American-influenced menu, he said in an email.
But nothing has changed with the physical appearance of the place.
The restaurant is divided into two sections. There's a cheerful coffee bar and tables in a sunlit area for the breakfast and lunch crowd. Evening diners sit there, too.
But on our visit, a couple of guests were requesting a move across the hall to the more sophisticated dining room with green Chesterfield banquettes, zinc-topped tables, brick and stone walls, and a hunter-green plaid carpet.
We sat on that side in one of the comfy booths, appreciating its luxe feel. Our server was efficient but distracted by other diners when we first arrived. He later paid more attention to our table.
The Foreman Wolf group prides itself on its wines. At Johnny's, more than 50 are offered by the glass and bottle under headings like "Better Than You Think" and "Totally Worth It." We appreciated our waiter's suggestion, a Matanzas Creek Winery (Sonoma County, Calif.) chardonnay, when we asked for an oaky wine.
There are a dozen beers, including one from local Union Craft Brewery, and several craft cocktails, like a Johnny's Smash with Beefeater gin, honey, lime, soda and sage. The restaurant is known for its whiskey selection, hosting Whiskey Wednesdays with discounted prices.
Johnny's is in the middle of a residential area, so it's no surprise that families make up a large portion of diners in the early evening. Finding a parking spot in the tiny lot is still as difficult as ever.
But once inside Johnny's foyer, glass jars of golden house-baked cookies and a welcoming host promise a good repast.
The fried green tomatoes were a great beginning. The two thick breadcrumb-coated slices were stacked with a fresh corn and bean succotash mix and poised on a pool of decadently delicious jalapeno mayonnaise.
Another appetizer, the spiced lamb empanadas, featured three half-moons of pastry embracing a delicate meat filling hinting of cumin. The flaky turnovers were nested on a swish of chipotle aioli that added a pleasant zing. You'll like these even if you're not a lamb lover.
Our other starter, a royal sea bass seviche, was a terrific version of the popular Latin American dish, with thin slices of white fish soaking up the lime vinaigrette. The soft chew got a nice crunch from red onions and crispy wontons.
For our main meals, we enjoyed the grilled swordfish, which rested over thin rounds of rosemary-roasted red potatoes. The bright-orange ginger-carrot puree dolloped on top of the fillet was a flavor and color boost to the dish.
If you want to be guaranteed leftovers to take home, order the sauteed chicken and Andouille sausage, a huge portion tossed with fusilli pasta and a calorie-exploding, but so worth it, pesto cream sauce. There's plenty of chicken, but we could have used more sausage. We found only a few chunks in the dish.
To appeal to all ages, there are several sandwiches on the menu, including a veggie wrap and a grilled cheese on homemade bread. We were pleased with the half-pound Black Angus burger, a rotund patty of meat dabbed with a smidge of mayonnaise and crisscrossed with bacon strips. Lettuce, tomato, onion and a garlicky pickle spear are served on the side. We opted for blue cheese (50 cents extra), and it was well worth the cost.
Desserts are homey at Johnny's, from sundaes and ice-cream floats to a devil's chocolate cake. The dulce pudding in a tall glass dish was a rich, creamy finish with a whiff of caramel.
The strawberry-rhubarb pie exploded with fresh fruit in a tender crust. (Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but it tastes like fruit.) The generous wedge looked liked it had just come out of grandma's oven.
A too-chilled four-layer carrot cake was jazzed up with colorful sprinkles on top of a flavorful cream-cheese icing with crushed walnuts on the side. The best part was the discovery of fresh pineapple niblets under the cake.
We like what Reyes is doing, adding thoughtful creativity to the kitchen, while keeping the palates of the restaurant's clientele in mind.
Roland Park needs a neighborhood gathering spot. And this is it.