We recently had the opportunity to dine with a couple of foodie friends at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Shenandoah. "Where?" You might find yourself asking. Well, through no fault of their own, Johnny's Italian Steakhouse has had a little difficulty letting the world know where exactly they are. We've talked with a number of businesses in the City of Shenandoah over the years, and it seems getting your sign approved is one of the most difficult of many bureaucratic challenges to overcome when opening a restaurant in Shenandoah, Texas. But soon everyone will be in on the best kept secret we're revealing here - which is there's a swanky new steakhouse in town, and you really ought to give it a try before everyone and their cousin is causing the wait times to run long.
Our party of four arrived about 6:00 on a Saturday night, and surprisingly were one of only a few parties in the restaurant. The décor isn't anything like what one would expect from a hotel restaurant, especially one with such Midwestern roots as a Holiday Inn. Johnny's Italian Steakhouse is cool, modern, upscale and well, kinda swanky. It's a little bit mid-town Manhattan, a little bit Chicago jazz club. We opted for a table in one of the more secluded sections, since we knew it would make it easier to set up our camera equipment. But the intimate space could just as well be used for a private meeting with clients, an anniversary or birthday celebration. The spaces offer two tables and curtains that can be drawn should you want some privacy while you dine.
We started with an appetizer called Little Italy ($18), which our server, Carlo, warned us was more than enough food for the four of us. There are four parts to Little Italy: calamari marinara, sausage bread, toasted ravioli, and bruschetta. There seemed to have been a little bit of confusion in the kitchen from what we could tell; because what we were served appeared to be calamari with rémoulade, sausage bread, toasted ravioli, and shrimp bruschetta. While on the one hand, we appreciated the accidental upgrade with the shrimp without an upcharge, unfortunately one of our guests has a shellfish allergy causing the otherwise delightful bruschetta (made with grilled focaccia bread, Roma tomatoes, goat cheese, onions, olive oil, and basil) to now be something he couldn't enjoy. Also, having the calamari come out with rémoulade instead of a traditional marinara was an obvious error, but as it turned out, the rémoulade actually was a nice accompaniment. Aside from these mix-ups, the feedback was both positive and negative around the table on the meal-size appetizer.
One of our guests ordered the Salmon Fiorintino ($20); a fillet of salmon, rolled with a blend goat cheese, spinach, pine nuts, and then sesame crusted. The salmon dish with tarragon béarnaise and was ordered with a side of steamed fresh broccoli but initially arrived garlic mashed potatoes. Once corrected, she really, really enjoyed the dish, saying it was certainly something she would recommend to others, and order again on a future visit to Johnny's.
Her husband opted for the Drunken Steak ($24), a top sirloin marinated in Samuel Adams beer and special herbs, topped with a garlic cream sauce (which he ordered medium rare), and garlic mashed potatoes on the side. Though he noted the flavor of the steak was "excellent," he did say the texture of the steak was a little chewy, though cooked properly. His opinion of the garlic mashed potatoes was that they were a bit salty, but good.
At this point we all had a short discussion on the "salty" factor of foods in restaurants, because all four of us cook at home using seasonings that rarely involve adding salt, or when we do, a minimal amount. So we agreed that while the potatoes seemed salty, it wasn't that they were TOO salty, just saltier that we would have made them ourselves. We also typically drink unsweetened tea and almost never drink carbonated beverages such as Coca Cola and the like, and when we do have sugary drinks, the sugar seems much more intense now than it did before we stopped drinking them.
I had the Filet Oscar ($32) a filet mignon topped with a Johnny's crab cake, asparagus, and béarnaise sauce (which I ordered medium rare), also ordering the garlic mashed potatoes as my side. The filet was tender, with a soft, buttery texture, and was cooked perfectly, with a warm, red center. I enjoyed the crab cake as well, and the quality of the crab shone through; no imitation crab here at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse.
I guess we haven't even mentioned yet that we stopped in last week for lunch? Since we had and were so impressed then, I really just want to try everything; so I ordered the Heart of Italy ($26) which includes a small chicken Parmigiana, fettuccine Minelli, and Parmesan crusted top sirloin (which I ordered medium rare). The chicken parm was good; no better or worse than average. The fettuccine Minelli is a garlicky, peppery alfredo sauce, and a little more of it on the pasta would have been great. As for my steak - I mean, I'm not mad so much as I'm disappointed.
One, if the chef proves that he does know what "medium rare" means when cooking up a steak (as he had for the first two steaks, a thinner sirloin and a thicker filet), why is it that he couldn't three-peat it? I ordered my steak to be cooked medium rare, just like the other two before me had requested. I didn't use any special terms or detailed descriptions like, "just partially cooked about of 20% the way, in a uniform, semi-circular manner with approximately 80% of the center area warm, yet uncooked." :)
As we mentioned earlier, we were in a slightly secluded space and the lighting was low - so when our plates first arrived, everything looked as you might expect but, that was not to be, at least not for me. I had already sampled some of her filet and agreed that it was very good, moist and tender however, I passed on the crab meat. The carnivore in me wasn't happy with the first bite of my steak as it was a bit chewy and after wrangling that portion, I began to look a little more closely at the remainder and discovered that it had been cooked to a much lesser degree of medium-rare, in fact, just forget that I said "medium" at all - it nearly mooed.
When Carlo returned, I requested another steak, and again, asked for it to be cooked medium rare, he quickly removed the steak so that he could show the chef and disappeared. He returned in short order, quickly enough that made all of us wonder how another steak could have been cooked so swiftly. Granted, it's not a large sirloin but, that was pretty darn fast; too fast in fact, as this sirloin was even more rare than the first one. When Carlo returned, I showed him the steak and told him that I did not want to try a third time, and we would just move on to dessert.
You won't believe we had room for dessert after all of this, but we speak the truth when we tell you that all of us took home at least half of our dinners and appetizers, as we had been encouraged at lunch at Johnny's Steakhouse the week before to save room for dessert.
Roasted Banana Cheesecake ($7) topped with brûlée of fresh banana and salted rum butterscotch, this cheesecake was every bit of banana-y, butterscotch-y, cheesecake-y goodness you could imagine. Two out of four of us ordered it, all of us gave it two thumbs up.
Limoncello Cake ($7) this citrus cake layered with raspberry preserves, fresh lemon custard and fresh berries was decidedly not overly sweet, which was refreshing and also made it difficult to stop myself from finishing it, especially as I was the only one who opted for a cocktail with dessert - a Raspberry Limoncello Martini ($10) Ketel One Vodka, Limoncello, and raspberry puree; a bit sweeter than the cake, but delightful. Really, if you enjoy cheesecake and vodka, you must have the two together.
Turtle Cheesecake ($7) this cheesecake, topped with chocolate ganache frosting, creamy caramel, and chopped pecans, I was instructed to describe as such: "freakin' awesome :-)" We could say more, but I think you get the general idea.
In conclusion - Johnny's Italian Steakhouse is still working out a few of the kinks, but we don't think that's anything to hold against them. The concept as a whole is still young, and this location in particular is just getting started. Our understanding from prior conversations with management, as well as our guests who happen to have attended a couple of them, is much of their business to date at this location has been larger, corporate events which have gone extremely well for them, and is helping to build their reputation. Many of their recipes are their own, and they are particular about their suppliers, bringing in quality ingredients. Their bar menu is equally impressive, offering fine wines, local beers on tap, and plenty of premium scotch whiskeys. During the already mentioned lunch, we were told Hank Williams Jr. and band had recently had their after-party at the bar in Johnny's Italian Steakhouse after performing at the Pavilion. Oh, I should also mention that we finished cooking the subtly-cooked-sirloin the next day and it was delicious.
Would we recommend Johnny's Italian Steakhouse? Yes. Would we go back? Yes - and we're confident the staff will be able to show some improvements by then.
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