Sunday, December 28, 2008
Thoughtful Northern Italian in Kirkland: Cafe Juanita
Restaurant Name: Cafe Juanita
Location: 9702 NE 120th Place, Kirkland, WA
Helmed by recent James Beard Best Chef Northwest winner Holly Smith, Cafe Juanita offers up lovingly prepared, artful food. Neither too small nor too big, too pretentious nor too laid-back, the restaurant setting is warm and inviting (yet still elegant) with an open kitchen through which you can watch the magic happen at a comfortable distance.
I've had the good fortune to eat at Cafe Juanita several times over the last few years, with a visit a few nights ago being the most recent of these trips. There were four of us dining (all writers on this blog) and so we had the opportunity to sample widely across the menu. This opportunity, however, was not seized - too many of us lusted after the braised rabbit (one of Cafe Juanita's house specialties).
The food here is excellent and beautifully prepared and presented and we did manage to at least try several starters, including the Rabbit Livers and Kidneys with caramelized onion, toasted anchovy, and currants, the Veal Sweetbreads with Fried Capers and Parsley, and the Carne Cruda of Wagyu Beef. Of these, the Carne Cruda really shone. It was prepared very simply with high quality olive oil, lemon, sea salt, a mince of chives and raw shallot, and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. It was topped with a poached quail's egg and arrived looking ever-so-slightly unappetizing (minced and in a mound on the plate) next to thin slivers of crostini. But, one bite dissolved any squeamishness the presentation might have inspired. The sweetbreads were also great - crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside - and abundant. Indeed, all the portion sizes at Cafe Juanita are big (maybe a hair on the side of too big?).
For our entree course (as I mentioned above), most of us went for the Rabbit Braised in Arneis. This dish is rich, hearty, and delicious. I had one of the specials, which was a seared skate wing served with brown butter sauce and olives. It was...just okay. The skate wing was a little mushy and not so very flavorful on its own. It was served with an avocado puree that paired very well with the fish and ultimately saved the dish. For dessert we all indulged in a flourless chocolate cake (described very aptly by our server as being like "the inside of a truffle") topped with a malted chocolate ice cream. It was very good, but not transcendent. For wine we moved through several bottles of Barbera d'Alba.
Despite the few criticisms included above in my description of the food, I want to clearly convey that I really love this restaurant. The dishes are always inventive and fresh and inspiring. On previous visits I've had some of the most transportingly-good risottos I've ever tasted and a salad described simply as D'Anjou Pear with Pine Nuts, Parmigiano, and White Truffle Oil that was anything but simple or dull in its flavor. Cafe Juanita also offers a cocktail course where they pair a variety of lovely, fizzy drinks with a bit of cheese, nuts, or fried morsels (in the tradition of the Italian Aperitivi).
The service here is always great, too. Our server on this particular visit was very gracious and full of information about the wine, the individual components of the different dishes, and so on. She also said something that has stuck with me and made me ponder. When my brother-in-law mentioned that my sister was on a no dairy, no soy diet (because of her allergic baby) and had thus decided against joining us for dinner, our server said the following: every dish here is literally made to order. We can accommodate any food allergy or food dislike our diners have. Though a dish may be served off the menu with cream or butter or truffle oil, these elements can be left out of those dishes if a diner wishes it.
Now, on the one hand, this seems the epitome of the fine dining experience. Each plate is attentively and carefully prepared and the whims of the diner are catered to; nothing in the kitchen or at the pass escapes the notice of the chef. But, on the other hand, this seems at odds with the notion that we might seek out a dish that is authentically the cuisine of a particular chef. When each dish can be modified by leaving out some element (some perhaps providing some last minute essence of flavor, such as truffle oil, and others contributing body and richness, such as fats like butter and cream) then the dish is inevitably altered and diminished from how the chef intended it to be served. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Surely it is nice to know that my sister need not miss out on great dining experiences because her baby can't digest dairy. But it also makes me wonder about the integrity of the dish (which has no doubt been carefully conceived and prepped). I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this issue.
Indeed, perhaps this is best pondered over a steaming plate of braised rabbit at Cafe Juanita.