Johnnie's on the Side

By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 30, 2008

Johnnie's Reuben ($13) is not bad, but chefs need to bring in a real short-order cook for this sandwich, because it doesn't take to tinkering. The original is a grilled sandwich on rye. Pumpernickel, used here, is okay, but saving oil by using something like a George Foreman grill is not. If you spend extra money for lean corned beef, you need a real fried, pressed, crusty sandwich. The other error chefs make over and over is to reduce the amount of sauerkraut and increase the meat. This looks luxurious, but loses the precious balance of flavors with the Russian dressing. (Shirley, that idiot Phoenix food critic is taking apart the sandwiches again. Why can't he stick with the fancy stuff like the other ones do?) I will say that the French fries with the Reuben are superior.

On to the wine list. Some bottle prices are quite good, but the wines by the glass that we had didn't show that well, with the exception of a Seaglass sauvignon blanc ($8). Tin Roof cabernet ($7) just wasn't much — maybe it was yesterday's bottle? Coffee and espresso (both $2.50) were better than I expected, but tea ($4) necessitated the annoying task of rushing the tea bag into a pot of hot water and praying for enough heat to brew it.

Desserts weren't exciting either: pears zabaglione ($7) was one Seckel pear, candied more than poached, and very tasty if you didn't worry about actually finding the custard sauce. Apple cobbler ($7) was mixed up like a Brown Betty, but it was a grand dessert with some kind of liqueur adding intrigue to the ice cream. Chocolate-banana bread pudding ($8) was the homogenized kind, less like bread pudding and more like a Victorian steamed pudding. The portion was enormous, so this could be your whole table's dessert, since it also comes with ice cream.

So, if the food is not a culinary adventure, why do I like this place? Well, for one thing, I like huge rooms for dining out — there's a sense of drama in a giant dining room. Also, the service is consistently willing and attentive. On both of our visits, servers extended themselves for odd orders, timing of basketball games, and strange parties. The "front of the house" cannot rescue a truly dysfunctional kitchen (which this is not), but it can turn mediocrity into fun, even for a gourmand.

Robert Nadeau can be reached

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