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Out of the ordinary, off the beaten path, different. All that otherness starts with the boss, Frank Shi, owner/operator, and often chef at Johnny Chan 2. My sense is that the person at the top makes all the difference in how any organization performs, which is especially true in the restaurant biz. Being there, in the trenches, is essential.
Frank Shi may be away from his restaurant periodically, but he is there when it counts — and almost all other times as well. Why should this fact matter to would-be Jewish diners-out? To my way of thinking, when the proprietor is there taking part in the flow of the operation, all aspects of that operation have the chance to run better. This is especially true when the leader is a seasoned vet of his trade. Shi has restaurant operation in his bones. Shi has been a sushi chef at Johnny Chan 2, as well as the head chef in the kitchen there. He knows Pacific Rim cuisine and Chinese cuisine inside and out. He carries the recipes for his dishes around in his head, not in a recipe book or file. My sense is that he could make any dish on his menu from scratch with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back.
Shi sets the standard for his eatery. Freshness is the guiding principle by which he lives. “Everything fresh; the green beans, fresh; the snow peas, fresh. Vegetables, fresh. Everything fresh! We cook, everything added (to the wok is) fresh, not sitting around,” he said.
To me, that homage to freshness is demonstrated in the ingredients of the entrée menu at the restaurant. For instance, a couple of my favorite dishes are Yu Hsiang eggplant and Mongolian beef — divergent options for sure. First the eggplant offering, which is an outstanding dish that tastes every bit as good as it looks. For starters, the eggplant is deep-fried in the wok, and then added to a stir-fry of red peppers, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and wood ears. The stir fry then is flavored with a wonderfully spicy house-made garlic sauce, which elevates this dish in my view. For vegetarians and even those who are not, the dish has both a flavor profile and texture appeal that is outstanding. Sometimes vegetarian dishes can be bland. Not Yu Hsiang eggplant! I’m betting that if you like mildly spicy, high-flavor dishes with outstanding texture, you’ll love this one.
The other entrée on my sweet-spot list is Mongolian beef, a dish that features simple ingredients, but items packed with complementary taste notes that are perfect with the stir-fried protein of the recipe. According to Shi, the beef is stir-fried with onions and scallions in a light and tasty sauce. That’s it. And that is just perfectly enough. For me, Mongolian beef checks a lot of boxes. The flavors are prominent and appealing to me. For whatever reason, scallions and slivers of onions done in the wok produce an intensity of flavor that is remarkable. Mix those flavors with beef and the tasty trio is excellent. Mongolian beef is one dish that stands out among Chinese entrée items simply because of its intense flavor profile. The aroma alone will get you, I’m betting.
So, freshness plays a major role in the cuisine at Johnny Chan 2. But there is more to it than Shi’s reliance on simple freshness. Shi’s devotion to his approach is founded in Boston style Chinese cuisine. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there was a PBS show called “Joyce Chen Cooks.” Chen was to Chinese cuisine what Julia Child’s “The French Chef” became to French-method cooking in that same era. Both women were pioneers who opened new vistas into the culinary traditions of those two cultures.
In her day, Chen opened four restaurants in and around Boston. Bucking the trends of the time, she refused to load her dishes with ingredients she knew to be unhealthy. She chose cooking methods that produced low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium entrees. Tasty, but healthy too. In fact, she collaborated with Paul Dudley White, MD, who was President Eisenhower’s heart surgeon. Dr. White was one of the first medical practitioners to advocate lower-fat diets with heavier emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
Frank Shi has adopted those practices from the Boston style regimen of Chinese cooking. What other Chinese restaurants in Greater Cincinnati do or don’t do is a wild card. But Jewish diners at least know that Johnny Chan 2 shows its commitment to healthful preparation, in writing, on its menu, and in fact, through its ingredient choices.
Shi believes the whole approach he takes is one reason diners, Jewish and otherwise, choose his restaurant: “People come here for meal, they say: ‘Oh, very good; everything fresh.’ They like fresh. We make by hand, all sauces. Our food is all fresh and high quality.”
See you at Johnny Chan 2!