At The Table With Ellie: Johnny's Tavern

At The Table With Ellie: Johnny's Tavern

My roommates have a list of restaurants to visit in Northampton. They believe they’ve seen it all in Amherst and feel restless, thirsty for a new experience. Sadly, Nemo and the requisite driving ban forced them to stay local. However, this setback allowed me to introduce them to a spot of novelty in Amherst, proving that they have yet to fully explore and exploit the town.

We walked briskly into town Saturday night, facing blustery gusts of bitterly cold wind that froze our ears and reddened our cheeks while spiting us with splinters of ice. Finally, we skittered across Main Street, through the arch to the back parking lot near Bueno y Sano and slipped into the glorious heat of Johnny’s Tavern, tucked behind Amherst Chinese at 30 Boltwood Walk.

This cheerful restaurant and bar only opened last year, but it appears to have booming business already. The dimly lit front room was packed when we arrived late on a Saturday night, but the host quickly accommodated our group of four. Within a few minutes we were sliding into a booth, next to the floor to ceiling glass windows that line the front room. Open Venetian blinds allowed us to look outside while feeling a sense of privacy, and the dim lightning and personal booth provided intimacy. Although we were in what had appeared to be a busy and crowded restaurant, we felt comfortable and separate from our neighbors.

As our group of four scanned the menu, we declared our angst over our indecisiveness; there were too many options that we wanted to try. When our waitress arrived, I fretted at my lack of settlement. I was nowhere near ready, but luckily she had simply come to announce the specials and inquire if she could put in any orders for appetizers as we chose our entrées. I immediately asked for truffle fries ($6), unable to resist my love for truffle oil and Parmesan. Another member of the party ordered the Ahi tuna poke ($11), which has become a fast favorite of his. Then, after a rapid, but intensely serious, internal debate that pitted the healthier choice of a roasted beet salad ($8) against the prospect of a comforting and filling bowl of Mac and Cheese ($8), I requested the Mac and Cheese. I conceded that my stomach’s desire for a hearty meal was stronger.

Feeling relieved as the waitress allowed us a few more moments of speculation, I tackled my next source of tension, the entrée. I considered everything, from the simple grilled cheese with avocado and tomato on sourdough bread ($7.50) to the “House Made Gnocchi” with chicken, prosciutto, asparagus, lemon and cream ($17), realizing as I did that this restaurant even provided options for the vegetarian in our party. Again deciding that I wanted a hearty meal, I chose one of the specials: seared sea scallops atop pureed cauliflower and risotto and drizzled with truffle oil. My love of truffle anything holds sway…

Our waitress returned for our orders, bearing gifts of truffle fries, Ahi tuna poke and Mac and Cheese. While I waited to place my order, the scent of truffle oil tickled my nose as the fries sat tantalizingly close to hand. Soon enough, I could eat, and I savored each crisp yet tender fry, relishing the saltiness of the Parmesan that complemented the sweetness of the tomato jam. Then I snapped back and focused on the heaping bowl of Mac and Cheese. As I dipped my spoon through the panko breadcrumb topping, I spotted the rich, creamy cheddar cheese and noodles. The crunch of the breadcrumbs combined perfectly with the soft noodles as the flavor of roasted garlic pervaded and enhanced the delicate flavor of the cheese.

I would say that I made an admirable effort on the Mac and Cheese. However, I was realizing that I had ordered far too much food, even when accounting for my massive appetite. I forced myself to halt and await the scallops.

Luckily, the torment of restraint was short, as my scallops arrived promptly. I caught a whiff of truffles again and could barely contain my excitement. I marveled as my fork slid smoothly through the blackened scallop to reveal a pinkish, white interior. I quickly speared a piece of scallop, slid it through the puree of roasted cauliflower and tasted the concoction. The sweet, tender scallop mingled pleasantly with the smooth, savory cauliflower. As I finished my bite, I sampled a bit of risotto, and felt my mouth tingle and then slightly burn with the pepper that battled the almost sugary crimini mushrooms. I relished the blend of flavors, enjoying the contrast of the sweet, caressing scallops with the peppery, biting risotto and succulent mushrooms. As I prepared my next bite, I discovered a small puddle of truffle oil and quickly swept the fork-load through it. Now the pungent smell and taste of truffles flooded my senses, perfecting the dish.

Soon I found I could eat no more. I sat back, lounging comfortably on the leather seats of the booth and watching my dining mates finish their meals, which included the grilled cheese, the “Rare Ahi Tuna” salad ($14), and the “Tavern Burger” ($11) with some toppings added. As the waitress came to check on our meal, I requested boxes for my leftovers. Today, I enjoyed a delicious meal of the rest of my scallops and risotto and my Mac and Cheese.

As I think back to the meal, I realize that it is a great option for the special day coming up this week. The dim lighting and the soft, contemporary music create a comfortable scene for a perfect Valentine’s Day dinner. Furthermore, the food is high quality for a relatively small sum of money. I could easily have foregone the special (I’m not sure about the pricing on the special) or the appetizer and would have been more than satisfied with my meal. I would say that if you want to try a new place in town or want to share a special meal with your Valentine, consider Johnny’s Tavern. They have options for everyone and will not let you down.

This article ran under the headline “Then and Now: A Lasting Relationship” by mistake in the print edition, and the article itself was the wrong edition. The article above is the correct, most updated version.