Tuesday night I finally got to visit a place that has been on my "list of places to try" for (literally) years, Café Juanita. It was actually on my list prior to Holly Smith taking over the place but I’ve been really wanting to get out there since she took over the helm. And since she is celebrating her 5 year anniversary I know it’s been at least that long that I’ve wanted to eat there. About a week after I’d made our reservation, Holly Smith was nominated for a James Beard Award! I guess I’m not the only one who’s heard good things!
I have no idea why it took so long to get out there. I guess maybe it’s the "out of site/out of mind" dilemma. But now, having eaten there, I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Our original idea was to sample one of the Anniversary Tasting Menus. Unfortunately, when looking over this page I didn’t notice that each menu was to be served during a certain week. Duh! And so we both had lamb on the brain, only to discover that this week’s tasting menu didn’t include lamb. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…
We arrived at Café Juanita just at our reservation time. We were surprised to see that it apparently used to be a 50′s style rambler in an earlier life. The parking lot is rather small and the fact that Kirkland’s ongoing expansion is happening right across the street didn’t help the parking situation. Since it was after construction hours I managed to find a parking place part way under some big piece of construction equipment. Hopefully, we wouldn’t get blocked in!
We entered the restaurant and were promptly seated. Ten seconds later two glasses of water and a napkin containing three amazingly thin and delicate grissini appeared. While looking at the menu one of the first things we noticed was the interesting list of Aperitivi and that each cocktail was paired with a small bite. How fun and what a great idea! We munched on the grissini and selected cocktails. R went with the Ginger Martini paired with Foie Gras Cherry Brik. I decided to try the Rhubarb Bellini paired with Prosciutto di Parma Grissini.
My Bellini was a beautiful light pink color, effervescent and a bit on the sweet side. The rhubarb was not a distinct flavor but just enhanced the flavor, a bit to my disappointment, yet it was good. R’s Ginger Martini was wonderful! Made with a bit of ginger-infused simple syrup, and both gin and vodka it was so smooth! And it was paired perfectly with the Brik, although the Brik was just a tad bit greasy. But I kind of liked it that way. :-)
While we were sipping our cocktails we started putting together our own tasting menu since, as I started to mention earlier, we had lamb on the brain but it wasn’t on this week’s anniversary menu.
Our waiter returned and we began placing our order (we planned to split everything):
- Appetizer: Grilled Yakima Asparagus with Poached Egg, grated Parmigiana and Truffle Oil
- Salad: Belgian Endive, Celery, Fennel and Watermelon Radish, Lemon and Ligurian Olive Oil with White Anchovies
- Pasta: Tagliatelli – oops! A problem – they were out of the tagliatelli but had replaced it with a gnocchi with lamb ragu, but we were planning lamb for the entrée. What to do??? We consulted and continued…
- Pasta: Barbaresco Risotto with Braised Oxtail
- Meat: Saddle of Oregon Lamb with Gratin of Turnip, Mâche and Marinated White Anchovy
- Contorni: Grilled Spring Onions with Toasted Hazelnut Oil
- Dessert? We’d decide later!
First out – the Asparagus. As they were placed in front of us the perfume of truffle oil wafted over the table. The only bad part of this dish was that I had made a similar dish for a recent brunch but the dish I had prepared did not even compare! There were two keys to this dish for me. One was the grilled asparagus; grilled over a high heat so that they were deeply caramelized on the outside yet firm and crispy, though tender, on the inside. The second was the truffle oil, it was really a heavenly element. And I sometimes think that truffle oil has been overdone - it’s become the ingredient every chef must incorporate in some way or another – but in this case it really made the dish. I could have made an entire meal just of this dish.
Next the salad. The salad was fresh and refreshing and was almost a slaw. The salty anchovy provided a nice contrast to the tangy dressing. R gave her approval on the anchovies – they weren’t "hairy" as she had been thinking they might be. I liked the salad but I had no desire to rush right home and make it.
Our next course was the pasta. I was actually excited that we were getting the risotto instead of the tagliatelli, although I’m sure it would have been good, too. But we were surprised when two plates were delivered to the table. One was the risotto as ordered, the other was the gnocchi. When Holly heard we had a little debate over which way to go, she just decided to send us both! It was very nice of her!
I started with the risotto. It was earthy and rich and bursting with deep flavor. I think oxtail is one of my new favorite things! Then I tried the gnocchi. The little pillows were so soft and smooth. Unfortunately for me, the lamb ragu was pretty delicate and so it was lost since I had started with the much richer risotto. However, I had a couple bites of cold leftovers the next day and it was really nice. The risotto was still my favorite though!
The lamb medallions soon appeared. Perfectly cooked (we had asked for medium rare) and perfectly plated on their bed of gratin. The lamb was melt-in-your-mouth, roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head good! Our conversation stopped as we savored each bite. The spring onions accompanied and they were tasty. The hazelnut oil added a nice note to the onions and they were a good complement to the lamb.
I forgot to mention that we had asked our waiter to recommend a wine to accompany our varied array of dishes. He asked us a couple questions and then recommended a 2001 Pelissero Barbaresco. It was the perfect selection for out meal.
As we finished our wine we surveyed the dessert menu and made a selection – not like we really had room for it but we wanted the full meal experience! Our choice: Trampetti Olive Oil Cake with Mascarpone Gelato and Chestnut Honey Caramel. I ordered tea and R had coffee to accompany.
The cake was simple and light. It had been lightly toasted on the outside. What a good idea; a little bit of crunch surrounding the tender interior. The gelato was smooooth and with a bit of the honey caramel it was elevated to an experience! The cake is what really got me though – but that makes sense since I’m more of a cake/cookie sweets person.
All in all, this was a wonderful dining experience and I highly recommend Cafe Juanita. On the way out we stopped and thanked Holly for the wonderful meal and for sending out the gnocchi. We also congratulated her on her nomination, which she seems a little uncomfortable with. She seems very nice and like someone you’d just like to know.
9702 NE 120th Place
Kirkland, WA 98034