Hangover Helper: At Johnny's, stick with the classics

We first learned about Johnny's (4800 Roland Ave, [410] 773-0777, johnnysdownstairs.com) a year and half ago and were tickled to find the low-key establishment sweetly tucked under the high-end French establishment Petit Louis Bistro. Inside, Johnny's offers both an airy dining space with large windows flooding the room with natural light and a lower dining room in the basement lined with exposed stone walls, large pillars, and well-appointed modern touches. Each time we've eaten at Johnny's, we've felt welcome lounging in the sleek space almost as though we'd found a beautiful bunker in the city.

Though we've had mixed results the handful of times we've dined at Johnny's, we thought the cool, cushy dining area might be the hangover helper folks need, so we marched ourselves to Roland Park and set up camp.

Greeted by friendly staff and a witty, knowledgeable barista, we perused the menu starting with a wide array of doughy delights. The baker's plate ($10) arrived with four pastries, each impeccably executed: a ginger-apple muffin, a coffee cake topped with a hybrid granola-crumble crown, a sweet and crisp cinnamon roll, and the pièce de résistance, a bacon-cheddar scone (we ordered an extra to be safe). This scone is the sort of snack you order early and often. The outside gleams with a crisp and shiny crust, giving way to a buttery pillow of cheese and pork offset with a sprinkling of herbs baked into the center. We've ordered this scone on previous visits, only to find diners who got their shit together earlier than we did had cleaned them out.

Overall, we'd say Johnny's gluten game is a step above most of the city's, and it is where it puts its brunch A-game. We ordered a short stack of pancakes ($7) to share, and even though we'd had the pancakes before, we giddily dug in, remembering how incredible they were: thick, light, bubbly, and delicately sweet. We were beginning to realize that these pancakes are why we keep coming back.

The rest of our entrees, however, were scattershot in quality. The menu boasts an eclectic sampling of traditional American brunch classics such as cinnamon Belgian waffles ($7), eggs your way with choice of sides ($9.50), and an assortment of sandwiches and salads (ranging $8-$18), along with various Mexican-inspired breakfast dishes like burritos ($11), chilaquiles ($11.50), and huevos rancheros ($14.50), all accompanied with a robust coffee menu from basics like regular Joe ($3) to fancy drinks like the PBCT (salted caramel and peanut butter iced latte) ($6). We wouldn't normally drop $6 on a coffee, but as we launched our caffeine buzz on each salty-sweet sip, we decided we'd get this one again.

Munching away on brunch appetizers, we ordered guacamole that, while creamy and a little spicy, came with a confused mix of tortilla chips and crudité. We're not opposed to roughage in our brunch, but who eats guacamole with a celery stick? When asked, our server gladly brought us two baskets of chips to fill in the gaps and we dug in.

Of the five entrees, we won some and lost some. The huevos rancheros delivered a sizable cut of hanger steak nestled in a thin black bean stew, topped with a runny egg and drizzled with salsa verde. While it wasn't precisely what we think of for rancheros, this high-end spin on the blue-collar classic was spot on. The lean red meat paired perfectly with the rich, runny yolk all while the vivid salsa cut through what could have been a heavy dish.

The Sacramento omelet ($11) featured delightfully bold andouille sausage balanced with bright greens and uniquely tangy cheddar. It read as a simple dish, but it may have been the most flavorful one on the table. A departure from typical brunch fare around these parts, Kiko's Loco Fried Rice ($10.50) burst with the greasy umami flavors of bacon, garlic, soy, and green onion peeking out from piles of crispy rice. We'd order this again, but we'd get it to share, as we ended up taking home enough for dinner.

The rest of our brunch left us underwhelmed. Our chilaquiles arrived mushy and flavorless despite being simmered in what promised to be a bright tomatillo sauce. We'll confess we've ordered this particular dish at least three times hoping just once it would burst with tang and heat, but we're done giving it the benefit of the doubt; this time it arrived looking like soggy ribbons dumped in a shallow bowl strewn with cheese crumbles, scrambled egg, and half of an avocado.

Likewise, the TF burrito ($11) seemed, on paper, like a bona fide winner, particularly because it's stuffed with delightful house-made chicken sausage ($4 for a side order). It arrived looking sad and alone on a small oblong plate. Cut in half, the burrito looked to be little more than plain scrambled eggs, a few sausage pieces, and a hint of salsa verde. Which, it turned out, was exactly what it was. We were disappointed to see such a promising contender make such a weak appearance.

We desperately wanted to lounge and indulge in Johnny's dining room, and the menu, at first blush, seemed to meld all the brunch staples, but fell short in some major ways. We'll probably be back for the pancakes but will stick to the short list of tried-and-true other dishes.

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