Johnny's in Roland Park has been casting a wide net to find its food niche in recent years. It may have finally found the right lure — Maryland seafood.
When it opened in 2012, the Foreman Wolf restaurant tested the waters with American cuisine that had West Coast leanings. Then it shifted to fare with Latin influences.
In May, it switched its menu focus again, this time to local fish and shellfish under the guidance of executive chef Shane Freeland, a native Baltimorean.
I think Johnny's is on the right track this time, although the prices are high for a neighborhood restaurant. With most entrees in the mid-$20s and higher, a dinner there seems more like a special-occasion event than a spur-of-the-moment supper.
You can get a $15 burger (there are meat options on the menu) or a chef's salad with a protein ($23 with salmon). But some additional casual, moderately priced items would be appreciated.
The main dining room looks as handsome as ever. The green Chesterfield banquettes are sumptuous and comfy, and the zinc tables and plaid carpet add a sophisticated flair. The restaurant also serves breakfast and lunch in the cafe side of the space, separated by the entrance foyer.
The brick and stone walls offer a throwback, romantic ambiance with a cozy bar tucked into the mix. Craft cocktails, beer and several whiskeys suit the mood.
The carefully curated wine list will satisfy most palates. We were impressed with a crisp Austrian Gruner Veltliner for $18 a bottle.
We kicked off our meal with a fabulous grilled calamari dish. The tender rings and tentacles were adorned with bacon and fennel in a lovely bath of charred lemon oil. The citrus notes were subtle and interesting.
A round of salmon tartare was beautiful to behold, and to eat. The ruby fish was photo worthy with pretty lime radishes, shaped like a delicate sea anemone; a sprig of yellow wasabi flowers; and burgundy Bing cherries.
The cream of crab soup was a puzzle. The bronze broth was richly flavored, with an islet of crab salad floating on top. We were surprised that the soup's potatoes were still crunchy.
We weren't finished with our appetizers when our main dishes arrived. It's always awkward when you have to juggle both courses at the same time. But our entrees were a dream.
The pan-fried soft-shell crab was crusty and fat, and paired splendidly with a luxurious green-goddess sauce and an exciting cornbread panzanella salad dotted with cucumber wheels.
We have to thank our server for encouraging the teenager in our group to order the appetizer portion of the soft-shell crab for a main dish. The single crustacean was more than enough for a meal. (The entree includes two crabs.)
Our waiter was conscientious but seemed sidetracked by other tables. A couple of servers jumped in when they saw our table needed attention.
A side of French fries we ordered with the soft shell didn't arrive until much later in our meal. But when it did show up, the potatoes were crispy and wonderful. They were accompanied by two sauces, a ketchup blend and a mild cheese dip.
We really liked a seafood medley on the menu — a generous stew of shrimp, mussels, clams and crab dressed in a Chesapeake Creole sauce and artfully arranged over fluffy rice.
Our grilled 8-ounce Creekstone Farms tri-tip sirloin was supple and juicy. It was more rare than the medium rare we ordered, but we were still pleased with the three thick plugs of beef, enhanced with a rosemary red-wine reduction, broccoli spears and roasted mushrooms.
Available desserts are advertised on a small chalkboard that is brought to the table. The day's offerings included ice-cream floats, sundaes, cookies and shakes.
The lush Key lime parfait caught our eye. The tropical fruit flavor was a cleansing, soothing end to our savory meal.
We also enjoyed an enticing s'mores chocolate mousse cake, served with a heavenly snickerdoodle ice cream. The layered wedge captured an elegant side of the campfire treat.
There's a lot of creativity going on in the kitchen. And that bodes well for Johnny's reinvention of itself as a seafood restaurant.
We just hope it remembers that it is a neighborhood gathering spot and won't price out diners looking for good everyday meals.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 4800 Roland Ave., Roland Park
Contact: 410-773-0777, johnnysdownstairs.com
Open: 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. (breakfast), 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. (dinner) Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (brunch) Saturday and Sunday, 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. (dinner) Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (dinner) Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$35; entrees, $15-$31.
Food: Seafood, American
Noise/TVs: There's a peaceful air in the hushed dining room that always makes me feel relaxed; three TVs (two behind the bar, one in the cafe).
Service: The service at Johnny's isn't as polished as the other Foreman Wolf restaurants. But the staff is pleasant and eager to help.
Parking: Parking lot or street parking
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]