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Johnnie's on the Side

The Front of the House is at the head of its class
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 30, 2008

090102_duining_main
CHIPS AND CHOPS: The “kettle chips” are authentic, and the pork is thick and juicy.

Johnnie’s on the Side | 617.227.1588 | 138 Portland St, Boston | Open Mon-Wed, 11:30 am-10 pm; Thurs & Fri, 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat, 4-11 Pm; and Sun, 11 am-11 pm | AE, MC, VI | Full Bar | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk-Level Access
This large space has always housed attractive restaurants, despite violating two of Nadeau's laws: Eateth Not Within 1000 Cubits of a Government Institution; and Ditto for Sports Stadia.

It has been a brew pub full of brass kettles and pipes; a seafood-and-sports bar with high windows; a wannabe bistro with red-velvet curtains; and now a bar-restaurant with a splendid collection of city and sports memorabilia, dating back to Scollay Square in the former collection and the Babe in the latter. The background music is old soul. Not many old Bostonians think of Marvin Gaye and Tony Conigliaro as contemporaries, but it works for me. The food showcases slight spins on the familiar, and as a restaurant, Johnnie's has almost all of the features I like except being too dark.

What's odd about Johnnie's on the Side is that its design — not so different from many places of its ilk — is so well done that it carried me along. A dish-by-dish analysis of the food doesn't impress, but I had a wonderful time even though the room is loud when full (and it's frequently full). The crowds suggest that I'm not alone in enjoying the lack of cynicism. What Johnnie's is missing in sophistication it makes up for with enthusiasm.

Probably the ideal thing to eat at Johnnie's are "Kettle chips" ($7) — fresh potato chips as they were invented in Saratoga, and wonderful eating. Fritto misto ($12) here is batter-fried calamari, mussels, and popcorn shrimp. The frying is very nice, though a little bready to appreciate the dip, which is a cross between pesto and chimichurri — but it's easy enough to dribble out the cup of dip onto the sizable platter of fried things. There are also fried lemons and red and green hot peppers.

Lobster chowder ($12) is thick as stew, but with more vegetables than lobster meat. The flavor is cream more than seafood, but it's a fine bowl on a cold night. Caesar salad ($9) is ordinary, except for a small toast with a couple of white anchovies on top. The mixed greens salad ($8) is the usual stuff, too, plus grape tomatoes. It's perfectly dressed.

Trout ($18) is a winning entrûe: a flavorful fish despite it being hatchery rainbow trout (wild trout have more color). It's served fully boned, which is difficult with small fish, and with an excellent side dish of pierogi — you like pasta, you like potatoes; aren't you going to like big ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes? — tossed with bacon.

I also like the pork chop ($20), a two-incher kept juicy with a cranberry relish and a wedge of scalloped potatoes. I'm less sure about the gnocchi ($18), although I ate them all. These are the heavy kind, which may mean pre-fab, served in a heavy meat sauce of beef and chopped sausage.

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 atRobtNadeau@aol.com.

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