The wife and I just got hitched in Vancouver and we headed down to Seattle for a “mini-moon”. Seattle has a wealth of places to eat, so naturally we tapped our foodie friends for suggestions and ended up at Café Juanita for our first dinner. The kitchen is run by Iron Chef winner Chef Holly Smith and has recently been revamped to match her vision. The menu is centred around Northern Italian cuisine and take a modern look at some traditional dishes.
What you need to know:
- If you only get one dish, get the gnocchi alla romana with lamb sugo
- If you get two dishes, the foie gras is superb
- Portions are large particularly for a fine dining restaurant
- Prices are on the high end but reasonable for the quality of food
- Staff our very friendly and knowledgeable – our waitress was very “Meryl Streep as Julia Child”-esque
Food: ★★★★☆ Service: ★★★★☆ Atmosphere: ★★★☆☆ Value: ★★★☆☆ Overall: ★★★★☆
Or early for dinner? There didn’t seem to be much in the way of a bar area so I’d suggest going somewhere else to chill out. There is a bar called Juanita down the road (not related as far as I can tell, the area is called Juanita hence the use of the name) but it’s pretty standard in terms of what you can get.
There is a decent wine bar a few minutes away called Brix which offers a wine list of around 20-30 bottles and also serves up tasting flights. We tried a tasting flight (3 generous pours for $14) and a cheese board which definitely hit the spot.
What to eat?
This is actually a fairly tricky decision as there were a number of items on the menu that sounded delicious. We knew that the foie gras was something we’d definitely try given YGO’s claim that it was the best he’s ever had (and that man knows his foie). After that, we opted for the risotto nero (squid ink risotto) with octopus and the absolutely brilliant gnocchi alla romana. For our meat course, I chose the seared venison while the wife went with the restaurant’s signature rabbit.
First though, the bread. You get a number of different breads and crackers served with a shallow dish of olive oil. The bread is fantastic and there is a serious risk of stuffing yourself senseless on it although the accompanying olive oil is very grassy and harder to eat in any noticeable quantity. But I chowed down on the bread without any accompaniments – it’s that tasty.
The foie gras lived up to the hype and was the best I’ve had to date. It’s seared with a glaze of autumn fruits which adds some necessary sweetness tempered with thyme while the candied ginger brings a warming heat. The cacao nibs added another layer of texture but felt largely irrelevant to the dish. I’d come back here again for the foie in a heartbeat (although too much of it may limit how many heart beats I’d have life) so props to YGO for that recommendation.
Onto our pasta course. As you may have guessed, the gnocchi alla romana stole my heart (or rather my stomach). I should note, this isn’t the small gnocchi bits you’re likely most used ot seeing, but rather in the Roman style which looks like a square of polenta. Each bite of the gnocchi was almost impossibly light with a rich cheesiness from the parmigiano-reggiano foam. The gnoochi sits of a bed of tender unctuous lamb which melts away in your mouth and the meaty sauce pairs brilliantly with the gnocchi. The wife and I may have fought a little bit over each bite but we learned to share, albeit a tad grudgingly.
Sadly, the risotto evoked the opposite reaction. While the rice was cooked well, the dish was overwhelmingly lemony and we could barely manage to choke done a couple of bites. The intense lemon-ness also washed out any taste of the octopus scampi which was quite disappointing. When we asked one of the staff, she told us that it was an intentional choice by the kitchen and not an issue with our plate. I’m all for taking a creative approach and I love bold flavours, but this one was a massive fail in my view given the dish was near inedible.
Finally, the meat! The venison tagliata (which mean seared slices, not a pasta) with smoked potato crema, roasted squash, and a sherry syrup was quite tasty although a bit smokier that I was expecting. The meat was served almost rare and had a great depth of flavour while the smoky crema largely managed to support rather than overshadow. The wife thought it was a tad too smoky so it’s likely to be one of those marmite dishes where some will love it while others turn away.
The rabbit was perfectly decent but lacking any of the wow factor I was looking for in a signature dish. We enjoyed it and mopped up the sauce with yet more bread but I can’t think of much more to say on the matter.
We also ordered a side of roasted cauliflower which was pretty awesome in its own right – definitely worth getting and it counts as healthy, right?
What about a drink?
Café Juanita offers a selection of aperitivi which is a drink paired with a bite of food. I went with a sparkling wine paired with parmigiano – the sparkling wine was an excellent palate cleanser and the chunks parmesan were massive. Luckily it’s one of my favourite cheeses so I was a happy camper.
I also went with a local-ish red wine although unfortunately I can’t recall the name. It was recommended by our waitress and it worked well with the food so that’s a positive.
Worth the dosh?
I’m a bit torn on this point but I think yes, depending on what you ordered. It’s not cheap, but if I were to go back and get the foie gras, gnocchi alla romana, and the venison, I’d be very happy with the value. On the other hand, if I had the nero risotto and rabbit then I’d feel a bit gypped.
Find Café Juanita here