Tucked away in a somewhat downtrodden area of town, Johnny’s Bar in Cleveland, which serves food from Northern Italy, appears to be an institution. The restaurant, which has operated under a couple of names the past 80+ years, delivers an almost static experience. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a number of the elements that make up the dining experience at Johnny’s Bar seem antediluvian. While other restaurants around the country might shutter at that, Johnny’s Bar should revel in that claim; and, I suspect that they do. Their success is further evident in that they have two “sister” restaurants operating in the Cleveland area (though I’ve never been to either).
All that aside, there is something very reassuring about the experience here. In a time when food and dining are squarely focused on the next big thing, Johnny’s Bar seems content to focus on tried and true classics. While the straightforward nature of the menu might make a foodie or two scoff, the reality is that the selections here shine because of their traditional simplicity. Make no mistake, there are hints of envelope pushing; however, those intimations bubble ever so slightly and are so delicate in nature that one can’t help but appreciate the delivery.
Even after my first meal here in 2001, it was apparent that this place was top notch. While the Buddha boys have forgotten the name of this place more times than I can remember, we manage to find our way back each and every time we touch down in the land of Cleves.
While this review will draw most heavily on the latest experience, owners Joe and Anthony Santosusso have delivered such a consistent experience over the years that I can’t help but appreciate the predictability that accompanies a meal here.
Driving to Johnny’s can be a somewhat nerve racking experience for those unfamiliar with the territory. The surrounding neighborhood doesn’t give you a single hint that would lead you to believe a place like Johnny’s sits just around the corner. When you do finally pull up, the brick facade and neon sign do little to assuage your concerns. It’s not that the building is truly dilapidated; rather, when painted against the backdrop of the nearby ‘hood, the exterior serves as a poker face of sorts.
The complimentary valet service further adds to the confusion. The service itself seems out of place and under delivered (you know … it’s times like these that I gotta ask myself … what the hell man? who in their right mind says the valet service is under delivered). Still, I’ll get back to that in a minute. We have more important things to discuss.
As you move inside, you’re finally hit across the face with a message: this is a restaurant that might as well be in the heart of Manhattan. For the most part, the flavor of the space is defined by muted woods and subtle yet ample lighting. I say “for the most part” due to the out of place mural that covers the top-half of the adjunct room that sits off to the side. The entranceway is dominated by the bar and a couple of tables off to the side. Somewhat of a shotgun layout, the main dining area sits at the back of the room, just above eye-level. Off to the left is that other dining room, one that I always thought was reserved for private dining events.
When the decor and the ambiance are considered on the whole, Johnny’s seems to push forward with a high end experience that finds itself absent of any semblance of pretense. They dance back and forth between the neighborhood joint fit for a casual visit and the fine dining experience that is worthy of even your most important celebrations. The line is further blurred by the bocce court and patio seating out back on the one hand and the $30 entrées all around on the other.
This particular meal, there was a wine tasting in the main dining area and so we were seated in the wing. I was under the impression that the room we found ourselves in was used as a private dinning room. I am not sure if we were seated there just because of the wine tasting, or if that room is in fact available to for general restaurant business. Whatever the case, the design is so odd that I’ll leave you to your own devices as you look at it for yourself (just above).
Service here seems to walk that delicate line as well. My handful of meals here have always come with a warm and friendly attitude marked by experience and familiarity. It seems many of the staff members here have spent quite a number of years “behind the bar.” Last weeks meal was no exception. Our server, whose name eludes me at this time, was nearly perfect in her performance. She had a deep knowledge of the menu and an understanding of how to provide proficient service without pestering the patrons. I think the particularly long wait for the check was the result of a most unusual occurrence. It seems a few table hoppers decided to move in with the rambunctious crowd at one of the tables next to us. Their added orders threw our server off her game, albeit understandably.
With a little help from that excellent server, we were able to whittle down the 30+ choices into something more manageable. Papa Buddha started with the stuffed banana peppers, a house special that is always available. Meanwhile, I chose to start with the soft shell crab in a meuniere sauce. While soft shells are most certainly not in season, our server informed us that their source for crabs was top notch and that they were able to deliver a quality product. She didn’t mislead us.
The stuffed peppers come three to a plate. Filled with ground veal and Asiago cheese and topped with a subtle marinara, this is an excellent preparation. In my mind, a good marinara serves as an accompanying piece. This example is certainly that. As it had every time we’ve had these in the past, the hint of garlic and olive oil help this sauce take a backseat to the burst of flavor you get from the peppers and the meat. Spicy to some, muted to others, this dish delivers a little bit of a kick without drenching your palate in heat. That is to say, even if you do find this spicy, the heat in the dish does not prevent you from appreciating the veal and cheese mixture.
Meanwhile, my order of soft shell crab meuniere was equally as impressive. A distinctly Creole dish, it is their only significant departure from Italian cuisine. Ultimately, this was most impressive. The shells themselves were coated in a light batter that provided just the right amount of salt to the crab. The crabs, which were flash frozen, held up very well. They were meaty yet absent of that truly pungent taste that often seeps its way into seafood severed up in lesser restaurants not near the coast. The mueniere sauce was perfectly executed with a hint of buttery excess hidden between the lemon and what appeared to be a touch of garlic.
Selecting our entrées proved a bit more difficult. I’ve rarely had such a hard time narrowing down the choices. Ultimately, Pops settled in on the egg pappardelle with a veal bolognaise and topped with Romano cheese. I finally married myself the the medallions of veal Rossini with Shiitake mushrooms and Foie Gras. It was served over braised spinach and with a cabernet reduction, thyme, and a demi-glace. To boot, there was a little cheese custard on the side.
Both dishes were executed with the type of precision one must utilize to successfully deliver classics like these. The pappardelle showed just how creamy an egg noodle can be while the veal Bolognese helped accent the hint of sweet by bringing a little savory to each bite. All the ingredients were there, and the oil, garlic, and tomato base added just the right amount of savory. Furthermore, the tomato base did not overpower the dish. This stuff was prepared in house and with care.
As our waitress informed us, the Veal Rossini was the chef’s self-proclaimed best dish. In retrospect, I’m going to have a hard time disagreeing. The medallions of veal were pretty substantial. Approximately 4 oz a piece, they were cooked a perfect Medium. While I might have requested Medium-rare if asked, the chef’s decision ended up being the way to go. With the richness of the dish, the amount of juice one expects with a Medium-rare preparation would probably hamper the overall “flavor profile.” Instead, I had a perfectly cooked piece of veal topped with creamy and sweet Foie Gras. The meat was moist and tender and the richness of the Foie Gras was not lost on me. Ultimately, I relished each bite. The wine reduction and demi-glace helped this dish perform just as the pappardelle did; that is to say, the balance between the sweet and savory met the demands of the dish. While you “chew” on that, I’m going to revel just a little bit more in the decadent bouquet of flavors that was my entrée. While the prices aren’t for the feint of heart, neither are the portion sizes. The portions here are beyond huge. While clearly too much food for most human beings, I’d have a hard time not sampling an app and an entrée here because it’s just so damn good.
With all the love doled out just above, some of you might wonder why I don’t rate the place higher. Ultimately, there are just a handful of hiccups that prevent me from handing out a higher grade. None of the problems are catastrophic failures by any means. That said, when considered in their entirety, they prevent Johnny’s from inching higher.
Take for example the aforementioned valet service. As is often the case with a number of restaurants, the valet at Johnny’s seems to be more of an inconvenience than anything else. While it’s not surprising that a restaurant with this price point offers the service, the ample street parking and lot on the opposite side of Fulton Rd make the valet a nuisance. A further problem with the service is the attire of the valet. I’ve never seen one of them dressed the part. Though not really a problem, there is something kind of odd about handing your keys to someone sporting a pair of shorts, T-shirt, and some tennis shoes.
Meanwhile, a number of the tables are no longer on even footing. Apparently, the levelers that used to be there have long since walked off. While I’m not sure how that happens, I’m surprised they haven’t fixed that. Even more curious is the absence of steak knives. With a number of meat options on the menu, this is something that should be fixed … especially at this price point.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the meal was the room we were in. While the mural seemed out of place, so did the electric tape around the AC unit. What was worse was the noise. While certainly elevated by the two large and completely obnoxious parties that were also in the room with us, we managed to pick up on the conversation of another table as well. They were most certainly not projecting too loudly. Bottom line is, the room just isn’t setup with any sound dampening material.
I suppose that now is as good of a time as any to mention the wine. Though we did not peruse the wine list this last time out, I have no reason to believe that it is anything but extensive. During my last visit several years ago, I remember it being several hundred selections deep.
Sans tip, I believe our bill came out to $150. That’s not cheap, but with the quantity of food severed up, the number of liquor drinks consumed (four), and the overall quality of what was put in front of us – the price was more than fair.
All those criticisms might seem benign to those of you not trying to dissect every aspect of your meal. If that is the case, as it probably should be, I cannot find a single reason to skip a trip to Johnny’s Bar if you find yourself in the densely populated Ohio town. Well, that of course assuming you don’t mind selling a small, somewhat useless piece of your body to float the bill. Even if you do mind, I suggest you take the risk. Johnny’s is a fine place to spend your dough.
NOTE: Pictures courtesy of the Johnny’s website.