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Summer is my season to live in the past, my time not just to slow down but to hit Rewind and cue up Julys past to remind myself why this one’s worth savoring. Since nostalgia is a lifelong hobby of mine, and the calendar allows me to live only one July a year, I’ve found it useful to adopt imaginary histories to compensate for the summers I’ve chosen to forget. Few things call up these false pasts more vividly than seafood. I mean, whatever happened to those lazy days when we bellied up to the neighborhood fish hut to slurp down oysters and listen to the seagulls?
The fact is that those days never existed for me; the good news is that a fantasy version of that story is playing in real time at Johnny’s Half Shell. Johnny would be John Fulchino, proprietor not only of the Half Shell but, along with partner Ann Cashion, of Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan. Even though the duo’s empire is just two restaurants strong, it’s safe to say that no one in town comes close to this pair when it comes to combining folksiness with refinement.
Cashion has a cult-garnering talent for creating new dishes that easily recall some time and place in the past, making her namesake joint one of those rare restaurants where the black-and-white photos actually have their intended effect. Bostonian Fulchino is a front-of-the-house guy who understands that wine is a beverage as well as an intellectual pursuit; but he’s no dandy. With his chowder-thick accent and no-maintenance hair, Fulchino has the personality to age into an icon; he excels at his work without disappearing into it. Ask him what’s good, and he’ll tell you in detail. Ask him for a wrench, and he might just pull one from his pocket.
Johnny’s Half Shell, as the name suggests, is very much Fulchino’s place, but the restaurant confirms that the partnership behind it is a kind of dream team. With its almost cheekily old-school menu (it contains crab imperial and, during lunch, hot dogs; “Seafood Specialties” and “Strong Drinks” are printed at the top), the Half Shell offers a tasteful, grime-free reflection of a classic Maryland seafood joint. Yet it’s not a pure imitation. Its influences are all over the map: The clam chowder comes Manhattan-style; the po’ boy buns and potato chips are flown in from New Orleans; and the desserts, from the air-light chocolate angelfood cake to the lemon chess pie, are wistful sketches of home wherever it may be. Both the fiercely unpretentious atmosphere and the culinary tweaks smack of Northern California, and Fulchino seems to have stolen his restaurant’s heart from a Paris bistro. The french fries are, without a doubt, pommes frites.
Cashion doesn’t preside over the Half Shell’s kitchen, but the dishes on the menu that she designed are unmistakably hers. The salsalike mignonette served with raw-bar orders matches the briny taste of the mollusks so naturally you’d think the stuff was scooped from the sea. An appetizer of Asiago grits is polenta-creamy, serving as a rich bed for a scattering of barbecued shrimp. Roasted little necks are draped with strips of zucchini and showered in a garlicky broth. Pickled vegetable relish rounds out a starter plate of fried oysters that could become the subject of a Tori Amos song; the swollen flesh, the handsome crust, the moist insides, the homemade tartar sauce—it’s the kind of stuff God wants you to resist. The restaurant’s too new to proclaim any of its creations definitive, but Johnny’s crab cakes—what’s binding all that lump meat? hope?—and clam chowder—it’s about seasonings, not just clams—come close.
I should mention that I’m outed as a critic during my first meal at Half Shell (believe me—it almost never happens), and it’s clear that I’m recognized on every subsequent visit. It’s also clear that I’m not the only one getting good food. The owners have purposely loaded the menu with staples in the hopes that the kitchen will eventually run on a groove, freeing Fulchino up enough to throw some attention back into Cashion’s.
Whether the plan will work remains to be seen, but the end result right now is a restaurant that you can return to for its everyday menu instead of a rotating list of daily specials. Cashion gives each dish a personal flair, but she hews close enough to tradition that nothing on the menu is gaudy or pretentious. Yes, the soft-shells are cutely propped over a mound of corn pudding, but there’s also Old Bay in the beurre blanc. The lobster is so blissfully simple, rubbed with spices and grilled over wood, that the dish will never be any better or worse than the lobster itself. Ditto the roasted chicken, a perfect balance of herby crisp skin and juicy meat, and the ribeye, a gorgeously textured and surprisingly tender piece of lower-fat beef that’s raised by the same local farmer who provides Cashion’s with its buffalo. The grilled wild rockfish is technically simple, drizzled with balsamic vinegar sauce and paired with wild mushrooms and wilted spinach, but there’s not a bland bite on the plate.
Half Shell resides in the location formerly occupied by Blue Plate, a similarly nostalgia-driven restaurant that lacked its successor’s knack for quality control. The dining room is small, so crowds are a problem (reservations are not accepted), but the buffed diner space suits the concept. There’s nothing awkward about slurping chilled asparagus soup before digging into a hot dog when you’re sitting at the marble-topped bar.
Johnny’s is refreshing because it respects its own limits. (Granted, I don’t usually like my franks dressed this fine. But the dog is a stout, impressive rod of meat; it deserves to share a toasted bun with blue cheese and onions.) It’s primed for longevity because it’s primed not to change. It traffics in memories, and it does the memories justice.
Johnny’s Half Shell, 2002 P St. NW, (202) 296-2021.
The Quarterdeck is one of those fork-optional, crab-focused seafood joints that doubles as a bar. Which means that smokers are allowed, beer is served by the pitcher, and the bathrooms are not meant for freshening up. In short, this is the place to take out-of-towners looking for an indigenous food experience without having to drive them to the shore. It’s all here—fried crab cakes, peel-‘n’-eat shrimp, Old Bay-dusted crabs, slumming AOL staffers. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag a patio seat when the guy across the street decides to practice his sax. He’s not bad.
The Quarterdeck, 1200 N. Fort Meyer Dr., Arlington, (703) 528-2722.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.