Johan's Tasty Fare (and Shore Chowder) In The Pa. Countryside

Posted: April 24, 1994

Along-ago trip to Belgium left me with a memory of mussels that tasted better than those I'd eaten anywhere else in the world.

I think that I may have found their match, finally, at Johan's.

The chowder that began a recent review dinner at the Montgomery County restaurant had a mix of mollusks that included clams as well as mussels crammed into a creamy, delicately flavored base with potatoes, carrots and celery.

Owner-chef Johan Vregop calls the dish his Shore chowder, a name that originated, I'm certain, at the highly popular Jersey Shore restaurants he operated from 1979 until 1992, when he moved to the Pennsylvania countryside.

Vregop, I learned later, is Flemish, which probably accounts for his artistry with Belgium's favorite seafood.

At lunch in the restaurant a day later - inspired by the chowder - I splurged on mussels swimming in a sea of cholesterol (also known as garlic butter) and found the dish so irresistible that I blotted up most of the deliciously decadent liquid with the warm, crackle-crusted rolls that are another specialty.

My dinner partner had begun his meal with Johan's crabmeat cocktail, a whopper appetizer of marble-size lumps of good quality crab served with toast points and a bright cocktail sauce.

A Caesar salad was a nice rendering of that classic, made with anchovy, romaine, croutons and a dressing that glossed the crisp leaves lightly.

Two crabcakes with crisp, light coatings were only gently spiced, allowing the delicate flavor of the crab to dominate.

Venison, ordered medium rare, arrived at that precise degree of doneness. The chunks of wine-sauced game were tender enough to part with a fork, but my dinner partner preferred to do the job with a knife, which had been removed by our server with the remains of the previous course.

"He (Vregop) says you won't need a knife," our charming server said when my partner asked for the implement. The diner's lifted eyebrows, however, had the server back to the table in seconds bearing the requested cutlery.

Both entrees arrived with a large, yellow-tinted but virtually unseasoned potato and a marvelous melange of vegetables that tasted so fresh and distinctive that I am guessing they were individually cooked before they were mixed and sauced.

Our dinner setting was in one of Johan's nonsmoking areas, a former porch with glorious, wall-filling stained-glass windows and a pretty pastel decor. Arriving alone for lunch, I was led to a table for two in a cozy, darker room behind the bar.

When cigarette smoke began wafting from a nearby table almost immediately, I realized I'd been placed in a smoking area. When she was told that the spot was unacceptable, the hostess transferred me to the same dining room where we'd been served dinner and where, for this meal, I had a table for four to myself.

My lunchtime mussels were followed by a modestly priced ($6.95) omelet so filled with morels that I suspect Vregop has some secret woodland source for these usually expensive wild mushrooms.

Topped with gooey, melted Gruyere, the egg dish was a triumph in all respects but one. It was so firm and dense that cutting it required a knife.

Desserts sampled included a chewy, rich Linzer torte made with apricot filling and a creamy, homey combination of apple pie and cheesecake layers.

The restaurant has a decent wine list and a daily selection of wines by the glass.

Johan's location is adjacent to the huge Merck & Co. operation in West Point and is an easy three-mile drive from the Lansdale exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension.

JOHAN'S

West Point Pike and Garfield Avenue, West Point; 215-699-3352.

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sunday.

Price range: Lunch entrees $4.95 to $13.50. Dinner entrees $12.95 to $24.50.

Credit cards: Major cards.

Nonsmoking section: Yes.

Facilities for handicapped: No.

Atmosphere: Offers a pleasant variety of settings for all diners.

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