BON APPETIT – Johnny’s Half Shell: Seafood to Die For
September 1, 2012
By Alex Barron
The reinvention of Johnny’s Half Shell over the past six years is a great American success story. Prior to 2006, the inconspicuous oyster shack in
Dupont Circle was popular with locals, but relatively obscure to the District at large. When managing partners Ann Cashion and John Fulchino moved to a piece of prime real estate within eyeshot of both Union Station and the Capitol Building, they received flak from fans who worried that the restaurant was selling out, and that the quality of its food would inevitably suffer. Multiple accolades, including a nod in The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2012, serves as a resounding rebuttal to naysayers.
Make no mistake: Johnny’s has evolved a great deal from its original form. Patrons who arrive for a mid-week dinner may be forgiven for assuming that they have wandered into the middle of an upscale wedding reception. Lobbyists, politicos, and television production crews (Fox News has a major office right upstairs) fill the roomy bar area and spill out onto the patio. Location is everything, but part of the weekday popularity is a direct result of an excellent happy hour menu. The deals last from 4:30 to 7:30, and while the drink specials aren’t much ($5 draughts, $8 cocktails), the food prices are a bargain.
“Happy hour is a chance for people to sample some real Johnny’s Half Shell food at a really good price,” says event coordinator Melissa Glasser, “But weekends are a totally different scene. “
While Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and particularly Thursdays are dominated by the happy hour scene, weekends are when Ann Cashion’s cooking takes center stage. While the menu might be described as all-American seafood, Cashion, a Jackson, Mississippi native, has imbued it with a Southern flair. The thick, peppery gumbo ($9.50) is true to its New Orleans roots, and must be included in any conversation about the best gumbo in D.C. Grilled squid ($8.95) has a rich charcoal flavor, and Cajun barbequed shrimp ($10.75) packs a spicy kick, nicely offset by a sweet, fluffy pile of Asiago cheese grits. Oysters of any variety are a solid option at Johnny’s, but the best choice might be the charbroiled Chesapeake oysters ($14.95), luxuriously smothered in a layer of Asiago cheese. The hidden gems of the appetizer section are the famous trotter tots ($7.50), which risk being tragically overlooked, simply because they aren’t seafood. These golden brown tater tot/hushpuppy hybrids are filled with surprisingly light “ecofriendly pork,” seasoned with a dash of nutmeg. They come with several homemade butter pickles and a dish of lemony mustard sauce perfect for dunking.
Crab cakes at Johnny’s are heavy on crab and light on filler; they are among the best anyone might hope to find in the District. Although, to hear some people tell it, they are merely an accompaniment to some unbelievable tartar sauce.
“It’s so good,” raves Glasser, “Sometimes we just ask Ann [Cashion] for a little bowl of it to dip bread into.”
Whereas most tartar sauce resembles gloppy mayonnaise, Cashion’s homemade tartar sauce brings the sharp, herby taste of tarragon to the forefront. Her coleslaw, so often an uninspiring side dish elsewhere, is likewise fresh and crisp.
As for other entrees, sautéed sea scallops ($28.50) are small and meaty, receiving a boost from accompanying slices of fresh ginger. The shrimp étoufée ($24.50) features an authentically-spiced Creole sauce, along with a pile of jasmine rice to soak it up. The soft-shell crab ($28.50) is salty and tender, complemented nicely by a buttery Old Bay sauce. Cashion has a knack for mixing innovative sauces.
Chocolate angel food cake ($7.50) is the big winner on the desert menu, and while the cake itself is soft and pillowy, it is the sauce—this time a creamy caramel broth—that steals the show.
Possibly there are some who still begrudge Johnny’s Half Shell its move to a bigger location, to serve a wider clientele—but among the hordes of happy hour revelers and crab cake-lovers, it would be difficult to find a single one.