Size matters

Henri is impressed with the new small-plate menu at Johnnie’s

Lamb meatballs in curry broth.

Lamb meatballs in curry broth.

PHOTO by kyle delmar

Johnnie’s Restaurant
220 W. 4th Street

Restaurant hours: Thurs.-Sat., 5-close. The adjacent lounge, which serves both lunch and dinner, is open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-close, & Sun., 10 a.m.-close

Two-Twenty Restaurant/Lounge

220 W. Fourth St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 895-1515

Henri was thrilled recently to learn that Johnnie’s Restaurant, in the Hotel Diamond, had revamped its kitchen and menu—not only because he had been decidedly unimpressed with the restaurant’s initial offerings, but also because the new edition specialized in tapas.

One of the great joys of living in Barcelona, Spain, as a much younger man was discovering tapas, the traditional Spanish appetizers. Henri spent many evenings wandering the medieval cobblestone streets, stopping in at tiny neighborhood bars, drinking Rioja tinto, and sampling a wide range of tapas—from hard cheeses and cumin-spiced almonds to calamari and tortilla española (a thick omelet cooked in a round skillet, cut into wedges and served cold).

There are many theories about the origins of tapas. Among them: Tapas were originally small slices of bread placed over wine-glass tops to keep the flies out. Another: A slice of strong cheese over the top of the glass covered up the smell of bad wine. In any case, the word “tapas” is most likely related to “tops.”

While tapas, along with “small plates,” have become increasingly popular in the United States in the last few years, they’re often served quite differently here from how they are in Spain, where they’re typically displayed under glass—you order two or three with your drink and nibble on them as you stand at the bar. And because the Spanish traditionally eat dinner so late (10 p.m. is not uncommon), people socialize at tapas bars in the late afternoon and evening and then go on to restaurants. Here in the U.S., they’re commonly included on restaurants’ menus and served at tables.

The new Johnnie’s serves some 20 different tapas “American style” in its main dining room Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, most ranging in price from $4-$7. (The adjoining lounge also serves lunch and offers an abbreviated tapas menu daily.)

We stopped in the other evening and were very impressed. We started with a couple of glasses of sangria ($6) and the lamb meatballs, which came in a rich curry broth with green onions, and the fried polenta, which was garnished with red bell-pepper slices and a tasty tapenade. Next we ordered the grilled local veggies (eggplant, zucchini and red bell peppers with hummus) and the grilled shrimp kabobs ($12), with onions, apples, bell peppers and four huge shrimp. All were excellent.

We returned the following weekend, and we’ve sampled most of the tapas menu by now. Our favorites: the fried risotto balls in a red sauce with beets; the bread-and-cheese plate with pita-bread wedges and several different kinds of soft and hard cheese, including goat and Parmesan; and especially the strawberry bruschetta, with goat cheese, balsamic vinegar and basil.

In addition to the tapas, Johnnie’s dinner menu includes several good-looking beef, fish, chicken and veggie entrees. The grilled rib eye ($26) comes with creamy polenta, and the butter-poached scallops ($20) come with the beet risotto and fried Manchego cheese.

Although we haven’t tried the dinner menu, we have stopped in for lunch in the lounge several times. Colette said the brie-stuffed burger ($12) on pita bread with arugula was delicious, despite being rather messy and difficult to eat. I thought the fried avocado and prosciutto sandwich ($12) was delicious as well, and we agreed that the fries on the side are among the best in town.

Johnnie’s also serves five different brick-oven pizzas ($11-$15), including a duck confit with roasted garlic, fennel, and mozzarella in a cabernet reduction. I tried the pancetta with wild mushrooms and a béchamel sauce, which was very good, although on a second visit (on a Sunday evening), we found the same pizza dry and cardboardy and wondered if they’d run out of béchamel. Though not on the menu, there’s also a mixed-greens house salad that comes with tomatoes and an olive paste ($5). Colette ordered it with a zinfandel vinaigrette dressing and added a grilled chicken breast ($5.95)—she said the chicken was tender, the salad very good.

And, good news: Johnnie’s plans to expand its menu and hours as word gets out and business picks up.