I’d like to take a quick break from my planned Whatcom County itinerary and tell you about an AMAZING dinner recently enjoyed at Café Juanita in Kirkland, WA.
Café Juanita is nestled appropriately in the charming Juanita Beach area of Kirkland. A creation of award-winning chef, Holly Smith (James Beard award, Best Chef Northwest 2008), Café Juanita has graced the NW palate since 2000. Winner of many prestigious awards and nominations both locally and nationally, it has become a coveted destination for lovers of fine Northern Italian food and wine. I’ve been wanting to visit Café Juanita for quite some time and am more than pleased to finally add it to my list of culinary experiences. (Due in generous part to an awesome gift certificate!)
While although certainly an upscale dining establishment, Café Juanita manages to nicely balance elegance and classic presentation with the casual vibe of the Northwest. Smart casual is the recommended attire, so don’t feel obligated to don the formal wear. However, I think black-tie and little-black-dress would be equally at home with the casual set at Café Juanita.
My companions for the evening were my brother, Ryan and sister-in-law, Beth. They are both ardent foodies and were quite looking forward to an evening of deliciousness. They’d also been given a passionate recommendation to try the rabbit and were excited to comply. I’d also received several glowing endorsements for various menu items and was quite ready to give as many a try as possible. Suffice it to say we were in for quite an amazing culinary adventure.
Starter – We began the evening with a lovely bottle of 2011 Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Evening Land. Joining our wine was an enticing presentation of fresh bread and house-made artisan crackers. I can honestly say the cheese crackers and olive crackers were by far the best crackers I’ve ever had – Flakey, buttery masterpieces. Even my brother who is typically opposed to olives loved the olive crackers. It’s often suggested that one ‘not fill up on bread’ and while although I do love bread, I often (begrudgingly) obey. However, one should never heed such advice when dining at Café Juanita. You’d be missing out on something truly wonderful.
First course – While enjoying our wine selection, our appetizer course arrived. We were a bit torn over what to order as we basically wanted everything on the list, but we agreed to at least share samples with one another. (I won’t lie – it was insanely difficult to part with a single morsel of my smoked sablefish.) My brother opted for the Grilled Octopus with Fennel, Smoked Bone Marrow, Green Sauce and Chickpea Purée, Beth went for the Grilled Asparagus with Local Organic Hen’s Egg and Parmigiano Reggiano and I lorded over the Smoked sablefish with English Pea Crema, Guanciale and Smoked Wild Steelhead Roe.
The three of us are all big seafood fans and have tried octopus several different ways and in several different dishes. We all agreed this preparation beat anything we’d ever had in a landslide victory – SO tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. And I’m still feeling a bit dreamy about the bone marrow… Positively fantastic. Beth’s asparagus was grilled perfectly and was tender and garden-fresh and not only was my smoked sablefish ridiculously good, I’m not embarrassed to say I would’ve licked every bit of the English pea crema off of my plate. However, I’m sure my tablemates were happy I refrained. Next time.
Second course – Well into our second glass of wine and only slightly regretting my bread indulgence, our second course made its way to the table. My brother went classic with the Hearts of Romaine with Garlic Anchovy Vinaigrette and Toasted Bread Crumbs. It was as expected, delicious. I opted for the Roasted Beets and Burrata with Poppy and Sunflower Seeds, Citrus Blossom Honey and Thyme and it was, ummm, wonderful! The beets were tender and delicious, but what absolutely made the dish amazing was the burrata cheese. It was blended to creamy perfection with a very high quality olive oil and if I had my way, I’d eat it every day on everything. EVERYTHING. Beth embarked upon the pasta special of the evening, a Cuttlefish Ink Risotto. It was rich, creamy, buttery and perfectly cooked with a delicate taste that didn’t remotely match its presentation. Don’t get me wrong, the presentation was lovely and the dish looked incredible, but it resembled what might’ve been a hearty black bean dish. I was so enamored of my sample I ordered it as part of my next course.
With our bottle of wine no more, we hit up our very knowledgeable and patient server, Karinfor suggestions. After additional input from the resident sommelier, I embarked upon enjoying a glass of the 2010 Movia, Ribolla Gialla and Beth went with the 2012 Villa Remotti, Barbera d’Asti. Just in time for the next course…
Main course – As I mentioned, it was recommended we try the rabbit. My brother took up the gauntlet and went with the Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Chickpea Gnocchi, English Peas, Porcini and House Made Pancetta. We had all tried rabbit in various preparations, but the Café Juanita presentation was on an elevated level all its own. Tender, delicate, pulled back from the bone and filled with porcini mushrooms, it was truly exceptional. I entertained several “No way! Look over there!” scenarios to take my brother’s eyes off of his plate so I could steal more samples, but I chose to be an adult. NEXT TIME… Ryan also ordered the Roasted Spicy Cauliflower with Cumin, Lime and Pinenuts as an accompaniment to the rabbit. The char of the roasted cauliflower mixed with the cumin and lime was fabulous. It gave the cauliflower a slight crisp on the outside with the lime and cumin brought in a very nice and unexpected depth of flavor.
As an accompaniment to my Cuttlefish Ink Risotto, I opted to make the course a pasta combination and added the house-made Maltagliati with Lamb Ragu. The Maltagliati pasta was delicious and the lamb ragu was rich without being overwhelming. It was a great contrast to the risotto and the wine made for a delicious bridge between the two.
Beth was intrigued by the featured seafood course and ordered the Trevally. It was grilled lightly in olive oil and served simply and elegantly. As she was already somewhat full from the previous courses, it was a perfect and light addition to the meal.
Dessert course – Not to mince words, the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Cardoon Blossom Honey and Vanilla Saltwas one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. Period. Hands down. It was light, silky, creamy, perfectly sweet and just plain extraordinary. I would happily eat it every day for the rest of my life. Arteries be damned. We were also insanely full at this point, but I have no regrets regarding ordering dessert. None.
Aperitif – While I enjoyed another glass of the Ribolla Gialla, Beth tried an Italian Amari (bitters) – I think it was Amaro Averna. (Recommended by our server) A wonderful herby and somewhat soothing way to end the meal.
As we had taken full advantage of the menu and enjoyed our fair share of wine, it was time to go. I also couldn’t possibly have fit in another bite. Well, unless it was the panna cotta… (My new philosophy: There’s always room for panna cotta.) To say my evening at Café Juanita was delicious would be an understatement. In fact, I’m still searching for words to justly describe some of the dishes we sampled. What I can say is my evening at Café Juanita was truly one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying. I can’t wait to return. Oh, and try the rabbit…