Until quite recently, you did not often see the word "bar" associated with food-serving establishments in this part of the world. Hungry people slipping into Bar X for a bite were most likely in Europe, or the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel, not on the streets of San Francisco. But in the past few years, "bar" has become a consequential rival to "bistro" and "café" as a restaurant signifier, and we have seen a profusion of Bars: Jules, Bambino, Tartine, and let's not forget Johnny, which opened about a year and a half ago on the swank flank of Russian Hill.
Unlike a number of its Bar-designated siblings, Bar Johnny really does seem to have some flavor as a bar in the American sense. The space (previously home to Tablespoon) is narrow, deep, and rather dimly lit, and its front half is dominated by a big, mirror-backed bar, complete with a flat-screen television showing sports events. The crowd tends to be young and boisterous, although (given the endless stream of ESPN) surprisingly mixed in gender. I have never seen San Francisco as being a city of blondes, but there are pockets, and Bar Johnny appears to be near the center of one of them. A certain Marina-ish haze hovers.
I also caught a whiff of urinal cakes one fine evening. The scent, at the rear of the public space and quite near the flapping double doors that lead to the kitchen, added to the bar spell while implying a degree of tidiness, but did not quite whet the appetite. This might be thought a daring strategy in an establishment that makes money by serving food to people. Are they so confident in their food that they can afford to run this risk? I wondered. Or is everyone here just supposed to get blotto and not notice much of anything? Bar Johnny does bear a subtitle drink kitchen and "drink" could be listed first for alphabetical reasons or ideological ones.
Bar Johnny's nearest conceptual relative might be the Alembic on upper Haight, by which I mean: if you want to treat it as an ordinary bar, with drinks and interesting nibbles, you can. Chef Roland Robles' menu opens with what are called "bites"; these range from a bowl of smoked habañero potato chips ($3) fabulous if slightly under-salted or warm mixed nuts ($5) to a grilled pizza ($13) bearing actual grill marks on the bottom of the nicely blistered crust. Pie toppings vary but do include entrants from the bianca ("white," i.e. no tomato sauce) family, such as bacon and mushroom. We found this to be a smoky, richly autumnal combination, subtly amplified by the grill char. The nuts, mostly peanuts and pistachios, with a few almonds and dried currants thrown in, were less fragrant but nonetheless both gobbleable and shareable. And while I don't see any Cheers-type crowd hankering after kale ever, under any circumstances I do think Bar Johnny's garlic-braised kale ($8) is as appealing as any of the other bites, despite its shocking virtuousness. The greens are tender, tasty, and a beautiful deep green what more can we ask of any kale?
Bar Johnny does part ways with the Alembic and other tapas or small-plates menus by offering bigger plates under the aegis "more ... " More food doesn't necessarily mean more money. For the most part, these main courses cost in the mid- to upper teens and, considering how good they are, offer a pretty strong value. We did have a mild difference of opinion about the seared tuna loin ($17), which had been rubbed with five-spice powder which for me tends to taste predominantly of cinnamon before hitting the pan, from which it emerged a beautiful, deep-purple rare inside. A hint of bitterness in the seasoning was detected by a set of lips across the gorgeously burnished gray marble of the tabletop.
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