Seattle DINING! logo


 

ADVERTISING
Revolve Brian Carter

 

Holly Smith's Café Juanita

Seattle's best restaurant is an Eastside gem

By Ronald Holden

It's the end of winter when Holly Smith lands in Rome for her first trip to Italy, a teenager still uncertain about her future. The freshly-harvested artichokes are already arriving from Sardinia and Sicily. Smith and her mother see them everywhere: in the Campo de' Fiori, in the open-air markets of Trastevere, in the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino near the train station, in the Mercato dell'Unita near the Prali shopping district. In Rome, there are two principal methods of preparation: carciofi alla Giudea (deep-fried) and alla Romana (stuffed with parsley and mint, then steamed). These are not the massive globe artichokes in American stores, grown in and around Castroville (self-proclaimed "Artichoke Capital of the World"). In fact, the Italians grow ten times as many artichokes as Americans and have no need to make spurious claims. The plant looks quite different, too. Long, leafy stalks studded with dark purple bulbs. For Smith, it's the start of a lifelong respect for ingredients at their peak and preparation that brings out their best qualities.

Traditional alla Romana artichokes

After that introduction to Italy's culinary culture, Smith and her mom return to Maryland. She graduates from college (political science) and attends culinary school in Baltimore. After a stint in Ireland, she starts working at the Hampton Inn in Monkton, Maryland, where Robert Parker not infrequently takes over the dining room for his marathon wine tastings. When her husband gets accepted in the Japanese Studies program at the University of Washington in 1993, Smith moves to Seattle and quickly starts working with Tom Douglas at Dahlia Lounge. Five years later, with Douglas's encouragement, she moves on: she helps her friend Tamara Murphy open Brasa, but in her back pocket there's a longstanding project of her own: a dinner house devoted to the cuisine of northern Italy.

By coincidence, Peter Dow, founder and longtime owner of Cafe Juanita, wants to concentrate on his wine company, Cavatappi. He'd been planning to sell the restaurant to his longtime chef, but the deal fell through. The cafe is in a house, an oversize bungalow on a side street a couple of blocks from the beach in Juanita; it's over 20 miles from downtown Seattle and far from a sure bet. But...deep breath: Holly Smith buys the restaurant. The year is 2000 and she sets to work. No surprise: she develops a solid reputation and a loyal following.

Fourteen years later, Smith buys the building itself. And in 2016 she takes another big step: she closes Cafe Juanita for almost a year for a major renovation. (To tide herself over, she operates a pop-up in the restaurant space on 12th Avenue where Lark had been before its move.) Smith hires the design firm Heliotrope to revamp the Cafe. (Some of their other commercial projects: Ethan Stowell's Cortina, Renee Erickson's Wilmott's Ghost). All new kitchen, all new entry, all new soundproofing. Still only 90 seats in the main room, but there's an elegant new space for private dining where Peter Dow had long kept winemaking paraphernalia. There's also a new patio down on the garden level, where Juanita Creek gurgles past. The magnificent old maple tree in the back yard is removed (sniff!) but it lives on: it provides the wood for the new table-tops). The gardens continue to supply flowers and herbs for the restaurant. The feeling is both urban and rural, like a garden estate.

***

What local places might compare to Cafe Juanita, in terms of ambition and execution? Temples of fine dining like Canlis, certainly; the old Rover's, the original Mistral. Eden Hill, perhaps, or Altura? Fine dining's a tough sell in egalitarian Seattle; upscale casual is a safer bet (Lark, Aqua, Art of the Table, Loulay, Spinasse, etc.). But if you really want to control the entire experience, from the mineral water to the bread, from the color scheme to the sound level in the dining room, you have to imagine bigger things. One key: the distinction between being judgmental and being hospitable. "I do want to be able to control the experience," Smith admits. Her solution is what she calls "thoughtful generosity."

You can, of course, order à la carte at Café Juanita. It would be hard to turn down a shellfish platter with Alaska spot prawns, king crab, and octopus in a black mayonnaise, (or, for that matter, the octopus by itself, with smoked bone marrow). Fortunately, the shellfish medley is also at the top of the seven-course, $145 tasting menu, which is where you also find tajarin with white sturgeon caviar. "That's what I would serve you tonight," Smith said to me during a recent, early-afternoon conversation. Smith doesn't force anything on her guests; on any given night, she points out, some 60 percent of her tables are filled with people celebrating.

White sauce tajarin with caviar

Down in the lower level patio and lounge, surrounded by fragrant greenery, you start with aperitivi (a 4-oz. pour of Krug grande cuvée is $42, if you're celebrating a major anniversary) and a few snacks while you contemplate the menu and wine list. Don't be alarmed by the prices, which are among the highest in town. With wine pairings the tasting menu clocks in at $230, a bargain when you realize that the veal chop alone is $75. The dish to have, though, is the rabbit braised in Arneis, $38, served with porcini mushrooms and gnocchi. The staff is in love with this dish; a pan of the braising liquid is available for dipping at staff meal. (Smith's staff is well-taken care of in other ways as well: full health insurance for cooks, 80% coverage for servers, casualty and disability, 401k. A restaurant like Cafe Juanita has a baker's dozen servers and the same number of cooks and bakers.)

As for the full wine list, curated by sommelier David Chou, it features several Barolos approaching four figures, but Smith and her crew are impressed by the Produttori del Barbaresco, a cooperative with a string of stellar nebbiolo wines under $150. You can find an excellent barbera for less than $50, even.

"Our menus are thoughtful, what I know you'll like, what I think you'll love," Smith says. As any restaurateur knows, there can be a difference (a gulf, in some cases) between what the chef wants to prepare (today's freshest produce, fish, meat) and what the guest wants to eat (old standbys). Ideally, there's no difference at all. It's easy in a steakhouse: steak. It's easy in a pizzeria: pizza. It's a more difficult decision in a fine-dining restaurant. The tasting menu is what the chef wants to cook (all those seasonal delights); the à la carte menu is there for guests who want to make their own decisions, or just taste the rabbit braised in Arneis one more time. At Cafe Juanita, guests can put together their own tasting menu; the kitchen will divide dishes. In fact, the service team has the authority to do whatever it takes to ensure the "best possible moment" for guests.

It's critical, Smith believes, to know your "why." Why are you in business? The answer is more important than the food culture itself. In other words, you don't have to be Italian to prepare great Italian cuisine as long as you know why you're doing it. In Smith's case, the details: "top quality ingredients, for starters," matter more than the culture. But her primary job, she reconfirms, is making her guests happy.

Holly Smith, credit Joanne Costin

Smith would be the first to admit that no one is perfect, that some guests will not be satisfied. (See the mean-spirited one-star reviews on Yelp along the lines of "food was horrible" and service that's "pretentious.") But for diners in the know, Cafe Juanita is a cathedral that inspires accolades like "fantastic" and "amazing." "Cafe Juanita never disappoints," writes a happy guest on OpenTable.

"I'm more playful now," Smith says. "I know I don't have to follow the rules." Pare it down, let one ingredient shine. "Our job," says Smith, "is to make people something they really love." She looks me in the eye. "You would love the tajarin with caviar."

March 2019

Chef Holly Smith and her restaurant, Cafe Juanita, were nominated last month for major national James Beard awards.

Cafe Juanita

9702 NE 120th Place
Kirkland, WA 98034
425-823-1505
www.cafejuanita.com

Ronald Holden is a Northwest native who's been writing about local food for over 40 years. His latest book, the second edition of Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com ( paperback here , kindle version here). He blogs at ForkingSeattle.com.


We've worked hard to upgrade this site. Click here to notify us of any problems we need to correct.

Bargeen-Ellingson

SUBSCRIBE FREE

Subscription has its privileges - Each month Seattle DINING! publishes new features on new restaurants, food and beverage news from around the Northwest and special events. Don't miss out on these informative stories.

Sign up today for your FREE subscription and you'll get notification each month when the new issue comes on line. You'll also be the first to find out about special Seattle DINING! events.  What are you waiting for? Sign up now!

 Click here to sign up now!