While COVID-19 has throttled the restaurant industry for the past four months, Armani Johnson found a new freedom to experiment. Spending the majority of that time as a sous chef at ABC Pony, Erik-Bruner Yang’s Italian-Asian cafe on the ground floor of a luxury condo building in Navy Yard, Johnson was a key member of a team that cranked out $50 takeout specials ping-ponging across cuisines on a daily basis. Prime rib one day would segue into Swedish meatballs, then Nashville hot chicken, Lebanese meze, or Peking duck.
Some of Johnson’s contributions, like the cheddar and Old Bay biscuits, proved to be top sellers. That helped put the 27-year-old from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, in position to earn a promotion to when the pair of colleagues that previously split the top job in the kitchen left the restaurant. Last week, with an executive chef title in hand for the first time, Johnson rolled out a new menu at ABC Pony that shows the months-old restaurant will continue to leave labels behind while adopting Mid-Atlantic soul food that speaks to what Johnson ate at home in Prince George’s County.
Johnson’s cheddar bay biscuits have now become the topping for baked crab dip that functions as a savory cobbler. He pipes the biscuit dough atop a mustard-heavy mix of crab meat, cream, cream cheese, Old Bay, melted leeks, and caramelized onions. For $18, it easily feeds four. Johnson says he never made crab dip before trying it at the restaurant, but his mom made it at home, and it didn’t take him long to write out a version in his little red notebook.
Customers for takeout, delivery, and — starting today, limited counter service — will also find a blackened rockfish with dirty rice that adopts Chinese influences. The chicken livers traditionally used in the rice replace the seafood in an offal XO sauce that contains chiles, garlic, lime, and fish sauce.
A fried chicken plate with honey butter and fermented Fresno chile hot sauce comes straight from a takeout special. Braised pork belly glazed in black tea, citrus, and honey comes with barbecue navy beans and pickled watermelon rind, Johnson’s restaurant-level take on pork and beans.
“Erik told me to cook my food,” Johnson says, but his first reaction was, “I don’t have any food.”
Johnson thought of his mother and his stepmother’s cooking, and formulated an idea for jambalaya that turned into the dirty rice. He also thought about his first four months in the restaurant, following an anticipated opening in November, when it seemed like all he did was hunker in a corner and roll out pasta for agnolotti because an overtaxed electronic sheeter couldn’t handle the job. So along with the spaghetti in XO sauce and flat egg noodle bolognese that were already on the menu, there’s now a version of ricotta-stuffed agnolotti with prosciutto, roasted carrots, snow pea leaf tips, pickled pearl onions, and a sauce stained orange by carrot juice. Cavatelli comes with eggplant and mushrooms in a sticky stir-fry sauce that gives the firm pasta dish the taste of takeout lo mein.
Johnson has also found himself enamored with the process of frying doughnuts in rotating flavors. Last week they came in snickerdoodle or orange-ginger glaze. This week ABC Pony has powdered sugar or chocolate glaze.
“I can’t stop making them,” Johnson says.
Johnson came into ABC Pony with another impressive sous chef job under his belt, at well-respected, cuisine-hopping Sally’s Middle Name on H Street NE. It closed last year to make way for Thamee, and chef Sam Adkins joined Bruner-Yang to take part in the final tasting for Johnson’s menu. Johnson leans on that encouragement, and feedback he’s gotten from other prominent D.C. chefs like Angel Barreto (Anju) and Jerome Grant (Jackie/Dacha) to build up his confidence. His new job will push him to refine his own point of view, but Johnson never had doubts that this is what he wanted to do with his life. From the time he was young, he’d pick up pots and pans whenever he found the chance.
“Even as a kid, I didn’t want to play with other people’s toys,” Johnson says. “I was going into people’s cabinets.”