Homecoming at Cafe Juanita

By Jackie Du

That memorable evening was to be one of the most exciting culinary nights of my life.  My husband took me out to dine at the famous Cafe Juanita owned and operated by Chef Holly Smith. That’s right, the chef who worked under Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge back in the early 90’s; the same one who was on the Food Network’s Iron Chef challenge and also worked with Chef Tamara Murphy at Brasa before venturing off on her own to launch the critically acclaimed Cafe Juanita in 2000.  She’s been featured in top food magazines such as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Travel and Leisure and has been honored with numerous accolades from the James Beard Award Foundation: 2008 Best Chef Northwest Award and nominations for 2011 Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant as well as a 2012 nomination for Outstanding Chef in the US.  So that evening was destined to be a night to remember, and certainly one to be savored!

As we made our way to our venue my mind wandered to a distant place and time. I grew up in the Juanita-Kirkland area, a small suburb east of Seattle in the early 80’s. I distinctly remember sporting the widest buckleback jeans I could get my hands on – and oh yes, a really bad perm.  My fondest memories however, were the summers hanging out at Juanita Beach with my friends.   We’d bring our towels and suntan oil soaking up every minute and ray of sunshine during those times.  I remember it so vividly, as if it were yesterday. We’d swim out to the dock and swim back, holding races to see who was the fastest and run back to our towels gasping for air looking up into the blue sky laughing and dreaming of what “we would be when we grew up”. We’d build bonfires and watch the sunset.  I was melancholic and giddy all at once.  The idea that the neighborhood of my youth (my mother’s house was a ten minute walk away) was so close to this much-anticipated meal, at this acclaimed restaurant had me wishing I had wings on my feet.

We made it there well ahead of our 7:30 evening reservation.  Cafe Juanita is so completely unassuming that if you didn’t see the sign on the front you might mistake it for – well, a plain old house.  From the side it really looks like someone’s home tucked into a secluded set of trees. It’s close to the aptly named Juanita Pub and there are condominiums surrounding it from behind and the sides.  Like I said, not too fancy and certainly nothing that would imply there was an amazing meal about to be served inside.  I was feeling a little anxious but excited – a culinary “bucket list” item was about to be crossed off my list!

We were cordially greeted by our host and seated in a lovely corner of the dimly lit room.  As we sat, I noticed the ambiance was very laid back, casual and inviting. Soft dinner conversation floated in the air amongst the guests and I felt very at ease. My husband could have worn his nicer jeans and been perfectly at home, though I’m glad he got dressed to the nines actually.  I looked off in the distance and between the hanging glassware, we could see the kitchen where a team of chefs worked efficiently and quietly.   Water was poured and our server then shared the menu, evening specials and a little homage to the commitments Chef Holly and restaurant in using ingredients from organic and sustainable resources.  The wine list was amazing, focusing on Northern Italian producers but I also saw a few names with which I was familiar, giving us a wide range of choices to complement our meal as we saw fit. I appreciated the thoughtfulness which went into the wine list, catering to all budgets even at such a prestigious dining establishment.  We chose the 2009 Novelty Hill Royal Red Slope to begin our journey.

We shared two appetizers which I could have easily eaten all by myself.  The Grilled Octopus with Fennel, Smoked Bone Marrow, and Green Sauce Chickpea Puree was pure art on a plate.  The wicked looking tentacles coiled upon themselves and were set upon a tower of flavor and color and texture.  I later learned that the octopus was braised for three hours, which explained its tenderness, and then finished off on the grill – that kiss of smoke and ever so light “char” complement the buttery texture of the puree and freshness of the sauce.   Lovingly prepared and equally beautiful, this dish was simply perfection.

Grilled Octopus with Fennel, Smoked Bone Marrow, Green Sauce and Chickpea Purée

We were presented next with the Roasted Beet with Burrata , Sunflower and Poppy Seeds with Balsamico.   So simple and elegant rich and delicious!  Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream so its texture is rather soft. Burrata in fact means “buttered” in Italian.  Both luscious and milky, this cheese sprinkled with poppy and sunflower seeds offer a playful interchange of texture on your palate- the crunchy little seeds transformed the smooth cheese with each bite.  The roasted beet was sweet and added a spectacular color contrast to the cheese while the balsamic drizzle was the right amount of sweet acidity to round out this delicious salad.

I love lamb.  I have eaten it as a burger and also the infamous rack.  I learn that the saddle or lamb loin is the most tender, flavorful and often known as the most expensive cut of the lamb. When meat is this fresh you want to highlight it and not overpower it with heavy sauces. So I opted for the Lamb Saddle with Meyer Lemon and local greens. The fork tender meat was joined with the light citrus notes of the lemon sauce and the brilliant greens offered a satisfying crush and freshness to this dish. A sip of my red wine gave me hints of dark cherry and berry which paired equally well here – Heaven.

Saddle of Oregon Lamb with Ramp Tortino, Charred Rhubarb and Minted Salsa Piccante

My husband dined on the “house specialty”. Local Rabbit stuffed with Porcini mushrooms wrapped in Pancetta, braised in Arneis (white Italian wine) served with Chickpea Gnocchi. When he stopped making bad jokes about “eating Bugs Bunny” he was put in his place with what he said was “the best thing he has ever eaten”.  Agreed – I wanted to eat his meal too! Unbelievable richness and oozing of Umami from the porcini, no wonder this was the house special! Rabbit can tend to be dry and also very lean, so wrapping it in prosciutto then braising it results in a moist, unctuous mouthfeel. The goat cheese gnocchi were subtly tangy and ethereal as you bite into them. Do yourself a favor, if you ever plan on visiting Café Juanita, make sure someone orders the rabbit ~ you’ll thank me afterwards.

Local Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Chickpea Gnocchi, Pancetta and Porcini

The decadent dessert spread of profiteroles, torta even gelato that followed unfortunately did not make it to my list of exquisite edibles that evening. I was that full. But to my delight our server came back to us with a scoop of burnt sugar gelato.  Now close your eyes and imagine you are at the beach or camping. The fire is warm and you have sticks of marshmallows roasting when all of a sudden one catches fire. You look at it as the flame engulfs the sugary pillow. Now blow it out and take a bite. Can you taste the caramel-like sweetness? Perhaps you just got a little edge of bitterness from the ‘burnt’ black charred edge. Now take all that and imagine a cold spoonful of gelato resting on your taste buds.  I close my eyes again and see myself back as a young girl at the beach. The smell of the bonfire lingers in the air and I’m back in the old neighborhood. But now I see that little restaurant tucked back into the trees that I never noticed before. I know that place and remember what a life-changing meal I had. Cafe Juanita – it’s good to be back home.

Jackie Du is GEV Magazine’s Pacific Northwest Food and Wine Correspondent. She is a UW Graduate and has worked in the Health and Beauty industry for over 17 years. Food is where her heart lies; its history, how to cook it, where to find the best of it and the how to get people to enjoy it! It’s not uncommon to find her wandering the isles of her favorite local kitchen shop searching for her next cooking gadget. At home she can often be found unmolding a coconut caramel flan or reading up on the next great Food & Wine event around town. She lives in Lynnwood Washington with her husband Michael and their two dacshunds Cinnamon and Trooper. Her motto everyday. “Life if so good..go out and get some of it!”