Johnny on the Spot

Still waiting for silverware and water, we stared longingly at the cole slaw. The waiter stopped by with my friend's roast beef hoagie. He mentioned that all the forks in the place were being washed. We waited some more.

Finally, our waiter presented me with a plump and mayonnaise-y sandwich surrounded with chips. "No, I ordered the salad," I reminded him. With a shrug and a mumbled apology he trotted back to the open kitchen. I continued devouring my friend's crisp fries. As thick as bubble-gum cigars and seasoned with cumin, pepper, and just the right amount of salt, they were irresistible. We finished off the tangy ketchup and waited for silverware. I caught the waiter's eye. He held up a finger, indicating just a minute. But first he returned with my salad, a large mound of baby greens crowned with a tuna fillet the size of a bread plate. Still no fork.

Instead of causing a fuss, I lunged into my indulgent companion's Killer Hoagie.™ What's with the trademark sign, anyway? Is Johnny going national? With sandwiches this good, he should consider it. Slender ribbons of beef doused with vinegar, oil, red onion, basil, garlic, mayonnaise, hot peppers, and pickles seemed to melt between the golden, cornmeal-crusted roll that's baked at Johnny V's and used for all of its hoagies.

Finally, forks! But along with my first bite of tuna I also swallowed a puff of cigarette smoke that appeared as suddenly as a midafternoon Miami sun shower. I confess that as an ex-smoker I actually enjoy an occasional waft of secondhand smoke. Not when I'm eating, though. But even with the layer of smoke and a dusty-tasting wasabi-based dressing, the salad was good. The thin fillet of tuna was exceptional. One bite into the curry-tinged crust revealed a ruby center as moist and fresh as the finest sushi-grade fish.

A visit just a few days later with an acquaintance who had just moved here from Mississippi was a much better experience. Even though the place was jammed (mostly with buff boys from the gym across the street), the service was efficient and overwhelmingly friendly. The only thing to mar our late lunch was Jimi Hendrix blaring so loudly from the ceiling-mounted speakers that we had to shout and hunch across the table to communicate.

We concentrated on the food instead. Ordered at the suggestion of our bubbly waitress, a side of yuca "tots" failed to impress. "Sorry they took so long," she said as she placed them on our table. "They threw the first batch out because they didn't come out right." Neither did the second. More like yesterday's latke than tots, these brown, coconut-milk-soaked pancakes were limp and greasy.

For a main course I decided to try a dish I had seen on the menu at Astor Place: a corn-crusted snapper taco (the prototypical wrap). The boring, dry flour tortilla was saved by its filling: Slender spears of slightly crunchy baby asparagus and a snappy tomato salsa made an elegant contrast to the buttery slices of avocado and tender, quick-fried fish nuggets.

Even better was my friend's chipotle-spiked vegetable wrap -- one of the few vegetarian options on the menu, as well as the reason for all my anticipation about Johnny V's. Though there was no evidence of the trendy pepper, the wrap was delicious. The same undistinguished flour tortilla was loaded with a hearty selection of vegetables, including roasted asparagus, squash, mushrooms, and peppers, then doused with a mild tomato salsa.

The portobello mushroom "Philly cheese steak," the menu's other vegetarian-friendly selection, turned out to be a sleeper. Usually wary of dishes I can easily put together at home, I took a pass on this fancified mushroom hoagie on my first visit. My mistake. It is luscious. A warm, plump, soft roll is stuffed with tender, lightly charred slabs of balsamic-vinegar-marinated mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and melted provolone; it comes accompanied (as do all the sandwiches) by a handful of fresh, mildly smoky barbecue potato chips. Even steak fans might be fooled by the beefy, complex flavor of this sandwich, which has become one of my cravings. (I ordered it for a takeout lunch twice the following week.)

Die-hard meat-lovers, on the other hand, will enjoy Johnny V's decadent Cuban sandwich. Thick hunks of lemon- and cumin-laced roast pork and succulent honey-cured ham were dressed with paper-thin slivers of sour pickles, sharp mustard, and musky Swiss cheese. Unlike the ubiquitous sandwich served at cafeterias throughout the city, this version has hardly a trace of superfluous fat.

Desserts -- dulce de leche chocolate cake, lemon pound cake, double macadamia nut brownies, banana layer cake, and a variety of cookies and pies -- are made daily by pastry chef Rick Griggs, who fills the same post at Astor Place. They all look enticing, but with the exception of a breadlike banana cake with a cream-cheesy frosting, the desserts I sampled were overly sweet and heavy, notably a cloying, coconut-covered jelly roll.

It's always risky to pass judgment on a brand-new restaurant, but even in its first weeks Johnny V's stands out. It may not be a wrap restaurant, as I'd hoped, but I think that trend may soon pass anyway. Regardless, this ambitious newcomer is welcome on South Beach, which is bloated with overpriced, attitude-laden tourist traps. Here imaginative food, reasonable prices, large portions, and friendly (if not always flawless) service have already won the hearts of many locals. But the uncomfortable chairs, intermittently loud music, and occasional crowds make it less inviting than other neighborhood haunts. If it's popular now, just imagine what's going to happen when the movie multiplex opens next door. Wisely, Johnny V's plans to start delivering soon.

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