Twelve years ago, in 2004, the great Ann Cashion won the James Beard Award for Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic Region: Ann was, and still is, the *only female* to win the award from Washington, DC, and is a legendary, beloved figure in the Washington, DC restaurant world.
Ann is now back home, having moved and reopened Johnny’s Half Shell – not in West Dupont, not in North Capitol Hill, but in the old Cashion’s Eat Place space in Adams Morgan – this is perhaps the most roundabout, and welcome, homecoming in the history of Washington, DC dining.
Johnny’s Half Shell soft-opened about two weeks ago, and things still aren’t finalized by any means – there’s no wine list to speak of, and they’re currently reciting their wines by the glass. However, I started off with a London Honey Mule ($10) made with Barr Hill gin, Fever Tree (!) ginger beer, meyer lemon bitters, and fresh lime juice. The least expensive cocktail on their list, I certainly don’t need anything more than this as an aperitif, especially not when it’s going to be followed up with seafood (and it most likely will).
Remember in my Kyirisan review when I urged diners to rely on a critic with proven expertise in both food *and* wine? Listen up: unless you order the one, token, $40 steak (which is reportedly quite good), you should get the glass of Garnatxa Blanca ($8 at 5:30 PM) which has both the body and backbone to carry you through your entire meal here – other than the steak, it won’t matter which food items you order if you’re drinking this wine. Johnny Fulchino knows his wines, and probably has leftover stock from Capitol Hill that he’ll be bringing here, but until then, trust me and stick with this Garnatxa Blanca by the glass – unless you feel the need to spend more money than you have to.
The good news about the food here is that Ann Cashion is – at least for now – working service. My kindly bartender, Pamela, told me that either Ann or Jorgé Rubio (Ann’s Sous Chef) has been working the line every night – with either one, you will not go wrong. I so desperately wanted to give Ann a hug when I spotted her, but I went with ethics, and decided to save the hug for my second visit (and there will be a second visit … read on).
Having met with a friend at Songbyrd Music House before dinner (Do you notice something? The donrockwell.com Washington DC Restaurant Forum, Coffee House Sub-Forum, Hotels Sub-Forum, Help Needed Sub-Forum, and Tourist Attractions Self-Forum are all now open to the public – I’m also really excited to announce that there will be more Easter Eggs – big Easter Eggs – coming your way in the very near future, so please join our community by clicking here (it’s quick, easy, FREE, and PRIVATE – just reply to the validation email, answer the four simple questions, and you’ll be on your way to having free, unlimited access to the largest single-city dining guide in the world). A bold proclamation, yes, and it’s also true – and I encourage all of you to write me at donrockwell-at-dcdining.com with suggestions, corrections, and opinions about the Dining Guide, which is all-encompassing, and updated in real time; not just once or twice a year. Even though I write and curate the dining guide, our area has become so large, with so many restaurants, that I use it myself almost every single day. I read every email I get, and pay careful attention to what our community has to say – I am by no means perfect, and our members correct and help me all the time. I am grateful to our members, and they alone are the reason our community is what it is – I look forward to welcoming you, and introducing you to the most intelligent, interesting group of diners on the internet.
My coffee mate was meeting a friend for dinner at Johnny’s Half Shell, so we all sat next to each other at the bar, and I got a chance to nibble-and-pick at things I didn’t even order, leaving me with a vivid impression of the entirety of the menu. There’s both a bar menu, and a dining menu, and you can do perfectly well here by ordering from the bar menu (speaking of which, it looks *bizarre* seeing a second bar – a raw bar – in the back-right of the restaurant. Also, to see “The Painting” (Cashion’s fans will know which one I’m talking about) not behind the bar, but near the front door. Most importantly, the original Cashion’s Eat Place sign – complete with lighting – up against the right wall as you walk in, superimposed atop the “Johnny’s Half Shell” sign, paying homage to both Ann and Johnny – it all makes for a really nice package, which ties together the old and the new very effectively – would it sound corny if I said it was heartwarming? Even though Cashion’s Eat Place technically no longer exists, it sure feels like it does.
The only plate I saw, but didn’t taste, was the Fried Oysters ($10) with Pickled Vegetables and House-Made Tartar Sauce. Pamela told us that oysters drop a substantial percentage of moisture when they’re fried, so it’s necessary to use larger bivalves – this makes perfect sense, and both my friends said the dish was very good (it certainly looked good, and I can’t imagine it would be anything but: The fry-job was perfect, and how can you lose with house-made tartar sauce supervised by Ann Cashion?)
My fried starter was the Fritto Misto ($7) of Autumn Vegetables – about a dozen large slices of vegetables, battered and perfectly fried. The one hesitancy I have about the oysters is that my batter, while perfectly fried, was pretty bland, and desperately needed its dipping sauce – I want to call Ann’s attention to this issue because it was a (minor, easily correctable) problem that appeared twice in my otherwise-delightful meal: Ann, you know I’m your biggest fan … please do check the seasoning in your batter.
The bar menu has a Daily Seafood Slider ($3.50), and on this day it was – to my delight – a lobster roll, and while I was told it would be “just a nibble,” it was slightly bigger than that: the soft bun was the size of a small dinner roll, and it was heartily stuffed with lobster salad – this was $3.50 well-spent.
One of the highlights of the entire meal was the Spicy Cajun Style Barbecued Shrimp with Asiago Cheese Grits ($9.75). These shrimp were of superb quality, each one deveined and butterflied (how often do you see this?), and the grits were terrific – most certainly not instant – and brought to life by the light drizzle of barbecue sauce. You will not regret getting this dish as an appetizer; it’s not impossible that you’ll be reaching for the salt-shaker, just for a single shake.
I got a bite of the Eggplant Gratin ($7) with Fresh Tomatoes, Herbs, and Parmesan, and it was all I needed – if you like eggplant, this is a wonderful presentation. One nibble is all I needed – it’s going to be very difficult not to get this dish the next time I’m here.
Spicy Grilled Chicken Wings ($7) with Green Goddess Sauce are an absolute must for chicken-wing snobs. Remember how good Carol Greenwood’s wings were at Comet Ping-Pong, or how good they are at Balraj Bhasin’s Bombay Curry Company? These are of that level – they include the lollipops, so they’re ample and meaty, and they’re perfectly seasoned with a thrilling (yes, thrilling) counterbalance alongside the Green Goddess sauce – damn, these things were good. You know what? I’m going to hedge my advisory to order the Shrimp and Grits – you might want to get these instead.
There was only one problematic dish in the entire meal: The Streaky Spoonbread ($4.75), a side dish that’s an obvious (and extremely clever) riff on Spanakopita – perhaps even a nod to John Manolatos. Unfortunately, this inexpensive side dish was the only thing that didn’t work for me – the “streaky” part was spinach, making the wedge of spoonbread look like a Spanakopita, but the dish was both bland (this was the second one I was talking about), and more importantly, watery – for whatever reason, perhaps the spinach wasn’t dried after it was washed? I’m not sure, but this is the one dish that needs major repair – it works on paper, but the execution will need to be monitored going forward.
But you see, none of that matters because of the Crab Imperial ($14) – as fine of a Crab Imperial as you’ll see, and at $14, a pretty darned good value as well. This was my favorite dish of the evening, and there were several dishes on this evening that were excellent. If you like Crab Imperial, this is non-optional, and you have to get it. At $14, it’s obviously not a huge portion, but if you doubled it and paid $28? You’d be running up-and-down Columbia Road, naked, screaming about the amazing $28 entree you just had, before being hauled into the klink.