Café Juanita is a legendary FANCY RESTAURANT in Kirkland, Washington. Totally fucking legendary, much like the legendary philosopher-king Prince Meatyass, who successfully united all the different warring meat products into one united carnivorous nation, not unlike a Voltron made of tasty cold cuts. For years, I’ve been intrigued by the legendary fanciness of Café Juanita, and so I was super excited at the prospect of dining there. More excited, even, than the time I was offered the opportunity to drink rum from a skeleton hand. Note: it was a pirate hand, that’s why it was so badass. That very skeletal hand, which once grasped a saber and, perhaps, some gold doubloons, was offering me a high-quality dark rum, so how could I refuse? You don’t refuse a skeleton hand’s offer of rum, and you don’t refuse an invitation to Café Juanita. So off we went.
We started with veal sweetbreads in crepinette ($18). Many people complain that the word “sweetbreads” is a gross example of false advertising, but I would argue that “crepinette” is worse. That’s because if you ask for a crepinette, expecting a tiny crepe, you’ll be in for quite a shock. When you order “sweetbreads in crepinette,” you don’t get a miniature French pancake wrapped around some variety of sugary rolls. In fact, you get quite the opposite: a calf’s thymus gland, tied up in a web of the fat stripped from a pig’s guts.
Luckily for me, the prospect of such a dish is in fact the opposite of disgusting: I generally enjoy sweetbreads, so I was actually quite excited. The thyroid was perfectly cooked, tender, and very juicy. Unfortunately, it was too salty. It was even saltier when you got a bite of it with one of the fried capers which garnished this dish. Perhaps more disappointing than the saltiness was the fact that, halfway through the crepinette, I got a big sticky mouthful of caul fat. Caul fat is what you stretch over your face when you rob a food bank, so that no one can discern your idenitity. This is supposed to completely melt when the crepinette is pan roasted. Sadly, it doesn’t melt in your mouth. I found this out the hard way.
Next up was the baby lettuce salad with goat cheese crema and Piments D’Argile ($10). This was a perfect salad, and I say that as someone who believes that an actual, Platonically perfect salad can’t possibly exist. Fresh baby lettuce is beautiful: supple and coltish and refreshing, baby lettuce is the Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball team of salad greens. Café Juanita’s salad featured a mélange of butter lettuce and red leaf, served atop a relaxing pool of a smooth goat cheese dressing, with just enough twang to it to challenge the sunny disposition of the bikini-clad baby lettuces.
Pasta dishes were also quite tasty: goat cheese gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and fava beans ($18) was light on its feet, and far more refreshing than a pasta dish has any right to be. Airy gnocchi nuggets polka-dotted the plate, interspersed here and there with crimson hemispheres of cherry tomato and, of course, the aforementioned fava beans. My only complaint here was the sauce: I realize that they were trying to keep things light, but the sauce came off watered-down, like cafeteria Kool-Aid.
The Maltagliatti with Jones Family Pork Sugo, Honey Ricotta, and Black Pepper ($16) was the dark and stormy yin to the gnocchi’s watery yang. It was also way tastier than your mom’s yin yang. Squares of pasta were fancied up with zig-zaggy edges, as though snipped by pinking shears. These were delicate to the bite but somehow stood up to the hearty bolognese sauce in which this dish was doused. Atop the pile of pasta were three silky globules of the aforementioned honey ricotta. When mixed into the sauce, the ricotta brightened things up considerably, in much the same way as a crack rock brightens up your mom.
I crowd-sourced our choice of entrée by asking everyone on Twitter for a menu recommendation. People overwhelmingly recommended the rabbit, so in the true democratic spirit I ordered the Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Chickpea Gnocchi, Porcini, and Housemade Pancetta ($36). This dish was a showcase of technique, a veritable culinary concept car. A butterflied rabbit leg was stuffed with crumbly dark-brown forcemeat made, I would presume, with the eponymous porcinis. The meat was tender and flavorful and sported more umami than an MSG factory. Alongside this was served rabbit a second way: a delicious and mild-mannered rabbit loin, grilled and sliced into medallions. With the rabbit came a small, golden, starchy cube which seemed like it would be a polenta cake but which was probably the chickpea gnocchi. Rounding out this stately spread was a small side salad of arugula, laced through with batons of housemade pancetta. The whole thing swam in a slick pool of a very savory beige sauce. This sauce was good: lighter than it had any business being, with a glimmering peppery depth of flavor.
We paired the rabbit with an a la carte contorno of roasted carrots ($11) which I enjoyed more than the rabbit. Eleven bucks might seem like a lot for a plate of carrots, but these were magical like Lucky Charms: they sliced the carrots lengthwise, glazed them, and then roasted the ever living fuck out of them until they were charred in spots. The carrot flavor was a million fathoms deep. These carrots were utterly terrific, yet were also a melancholic reminder that, on the other side of the six 89-degree days we get here in Seattle, autumn drearily lurks.
We finished things off with a Chocolate Truffle Tortino ($11). Though I would have been more than satisfied to end the meal with another order of roasted carrots, the tortino was pretty tasty. In fact, as far as desserts go, this was surprisingly un-enraging! A small cylindrical truffle was topped with a couple blackberries and served with a quenelle of chocolate mint strachiatella and a tuile. The truffle managed to taste like rich cocoa, without resorting to the kind of cheap, over-the-top cloying chocolate flavor that fans of "Fifty Shades of Grey" inevitably enjoy instead of, you know, sex. The tart berries and the strachiatella were refreshing counterpoints. The most puzzling aspect of this dish was the tuile, which tasted suspiciously like Froot Loops.
Café Juanita is pretty solid. The technique is impeccable, and the flavor pairings are without reproach. That having been said, the crepinette was too salty and caul-fatty for a restaurant of this caliber. And I was less than enthralled with the ricotta gnocchi. Plus it’s in Kirkland. Still, if someone else is paying, and if the mystical skeleton hand hasn’t knocked on your door with a gift of fine liquor, I insist you go.
Rating: 7 phalanges out of 10
Café Juanita is located at 9702 NE 129th Place in Kirkland
For reservations call 425-823-1505