Attracting the Beautiful People

Ornate, and expensive, Johnny's Downtown is something special.

It's a snowy Thursday night at Johnny's Downtown, and members of Cleveland's upper crust huddle in the marble foyer, awaiting their table. While reservations are spaced a leisurely two hours apart, our weary host explained that guests often linger in what may be the city's most opulent dining room. Sometimes, he confided, diners have to be asked to vacate their table so the next party can be seated.

Owners Paul Anthony and Joseph Santosuosso have been successfully operating Johnny's Downtown for five years. Unlike many local restaurants, Johnny's jumps even on weeknights, maybe because most of the clientele have reached a stage in their careers where they answer to no boss higher than themselves. They come here for the decadently rich foods, the efficient service, and the atmosphere of tasteful excess that extends from the gilt-painted paneled walls to the thick black carpeting bestrewn with gold medallions.

This is a place to kick back and enjoy the material fruits of one's labors, in the form of steaks, veal chops, pastas, and seafood. Diners make their choices under the shimmering glow of huge wrought-metal-and-alabaster chandeliers. The mellow light washes across linen-covered tables and upholstered banquettes, caressing sumptuous burgundy-and-gold-satin draperies and mounds of fresh flowers. Even the martini olives are special here: husky fellows stuffed with salty bleu cheese rather than plebeian pimentos. (There is also a rock-solid wine list of Italian, French, and Californian vintages available by the glass or bottle.)

To go with our cocktails, we ordered white-bean salad, stuffed banana peppers, and a sort of thin-crusted pizza.

The pizza--caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella on a paper-thin round of crisp Sicilian flatbread--was light-textured and fresh-flavored. The crunch of the flatbread contrasted thrillingly with the thick roasted-tomato sauce and the creamy cheese. The pizza was served on a bed of mixed greens topped with the house vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar and walnut oil. Our diner, a light eater, was delighted to find such big flavor in a less filling form.

An appetizer of two fleshy, gently roasted banana peppers stuffed with mild, lean, finely ground veal sausage was one of the evening's specials. The diner who ordered it wasn't disappointed with its relative lack of fire and said he wouldn't hesitate to order it again.

We found the white-bean salad--a scoop of cannellini beans, surrounded by chopped red onions and diced tomatoes--less exciting. The beans, in a small amount of mild vinaigrette, tasted woefully bland until we mixed in the onions and the tomatoes. Even then, the out-of-season tomatoes and acrid onions didn't add a lot of flavor.

Johnny's menu lists more than two dozen enticing entrees. In addition, Executive Chef Vid Lutz and his staff cook up an extensive selection of specials that the servers recite during lengthy soliloquies. (WARNING: Pet Peeve Alert. Although I'm always impressed by the training these monologues imply, wouldn't diners, as well as servers, have an easier go of it if the specials were either written down or limited to a reasonable number?)

In any case, we all made our selections from the standard menu and experienced few disappointments.

Our entrees came with a delightful salad of buttery Bibb lettuce topped with toasted walnuts, crumbled bleu cheese, and the house vinaigrette. Some kitchens seem to treat the salad course as a second thought; this one was a symphony of subtly sweet, salty, and nutty flavors which was a highlight of our meals. Warm, cake-like focaccia and slabs of sweet butter made the perfect counterpoint.

Two of our four entrees were outstanding. The first, a long-boned veal chop, was a robust and savory dish. The chop, just shy of two inches thick, was split to the bone and stuffed with plenty of sharp Asiago cheese before being broiled medium-rare, as ordered. It came coated with rich, sage-scented demi-glace and topped with earthy sauteed shiitake mushrooms.

The other meat dish was an excellent variation on that culinary classic, Beef Wellington. In this version, a large, meltingly tender beef filet was topped, not with páte, but with chunks of lobster tail-and-claw meat, wrapped in a popover-like pastry, and baked to a turn (or, more specifically, rare, as ordered). The incredible combination of juicy beef, sweet lobster meat, and that rich pastry, all on a puddle of smooth Chardonnay cream sauce, was my idea of heaven on a plate.

A third entree, a potato-encrusted grouper filet sauteed in olive oil and garnished with garlic beurre blanc, was good, although it couldn't compete with the beef and veal dishes. While the fish was unmistakably fresh and the coating crisp and tasty, the filet was slightly dry and could have profited from a more generous dousing of the beurre blanc. It is not a stellar dish, although it is still very good.

All these meals were prettily plated with a scoop of Savoy Potatoes--sliced potatoes baked in a mild cream sauce, flavored with onions, salt, and pepper, and topped with threads of deep-fried onions--a few perfect haricots verts, and a miniature flan infused with the nutty taste of Gruyere.

The final entree--housemade gnocchi with shrimp and broccoli in a heavy cream sauce--is, at $21.95, one of the least expensive items on the menu. It was also the least impressive. The gnocchi---little cloud-like, handmade potato dumplings--were as delicate and light as any we had ever sampled, and the broccoli florets were cooked to tender-crisp perfection. However, the eight or so shrimp were disappointingly tough and chewy. Worse still, the cream sauce was so salty that it masked any other flavors that may have been hiding within the dish.

(This unfortunate diner consoled herself with memories of a world-class risotto she had enjoyed during an earlier lunch at Johnny's. That perfectly prepared rice dish had been flavored with generous amounts of portobello, shiitake, and button mushrooms and dotted with Asiago cheese. The result was sweet, salty, creamy, and--while each little grain of rice maintained its individuality--absolutely tender.)

For our meals' sweet finale, we chose Creme Brulee, tiramisu, a flourless Chocolate Decadence cake, and a poached pear.

The whole cored pear had been simmered in a syrup of port wine, sugar, and star anise, and stuffed with sweetened mascarpone. Rolled in chopped pistachios, doused with more syrup, set upon a disk of crisp phyllo pastry, and served chilled on a puddle of Creme Anglaise, the entire concoction was refreshing and sweet, but not the least bit heavy.

Of course, for some folks, if it's not chocolate, it's not dessert, so how better to get a whole week's worth in one night than in a hearty wedge of Chocolate Decadence? This fudgy, walnut-spiked cake was coated with a chocolate-and-cream ganache and served beside a small pool of white Creme Anglaise, which was artfully accented with dots of dark chocolate sauce. Truly, it is a chocolate-lover's dream come true.

The Creme Brulee was likewise rich and delectable. Topped with an unusually thick shell of caramelized sugar, the golden-yellow custard was one of the smoothest and creamiest we had ever enjoyed.

As wonderful as these sweets were, the tiramisu was tops: four ladyfingers soaked in espresso, topped with sweetened mascarpone, rolled in shaved sweet chocolate, edged with whipped cream, and arranged like spokes upon a pool of thin, tart raspberry puree. Finally, each little spoke was garnished with a crisp slice of ladyfinger. The overall effect was as grand as the restaurant itself.

Throughout the meal, service was prompt, efficient, but not especially warm--a circumstance perhaps explained by the unremitting crush of diners.

Would I go back again? In a heartbeat. Despite very dear prices and some unevenness in the food, most of the dishes we sampled were wonderfully prepared and completely satisfying. Perhaps most importantly, within the confines of the dining room's golden glow, everything, even our very ordinary lives, somehow seemed larger and more exciting than before. And as all beautiful people know, that's an experience worth paying for.

Johnny's Downtown.
1406 West 6th Street, Cleveland. 216-623-0055. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Mozzarella, Basil, Onions, and Tomatoes on Sicilian Flatbread, $8.95

Stuffed Banana Peppers, $9.95

White Bean Salad, $4.75

Gnocchi with Shrimp, Broccoli, and Heavy Cream, $21.95

Potato-Crusted Grouper, $25.95

Veal Chop Stuffed with Asiago Cheese, $27.95

Filet of Beef with Lobster in Puff Pastry, $26.95

Poached Pear Stuffed with Mascarpone, $6.25

Chocolate Decadence Cake, $5.25

Creme Brulee, $4.95

Tiramisu, $5.25

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