The mother of invention

Holly Smith's energetic kitchen cranks out some exceptional eats.

LONG BEFORE the Herb Farm was the Herb Farm, a fine Italian place in north Kirkland was the jewel in the Eastside's culinary crown. It was 1977 when Peter Dow opened Cafe Juanita, a sleek room across from Juanita Beach that quickly earned a reputation for culinary refinement and crackerjack consistency. (Dow's pastas were reliably elegant.) Cafe Juanita was a restaurateur's restaurant, its every aspect bearing the imprint of the affable Dow himself. Regulars were loyal as charter members. Cafe Juanita

9702 NE 120th Pl, Kirkland, 425-823-1505 Tue-Sat 5-10pm, Sun 5-9pm AE, DC, MC, V; full bar Cut to 2000: Dow, hands now in other endeavors, looks to retire from the restaurant biz and pass on his legacy to a suitable successor. Enter Holly Smith, a chef whose r鳵m頬ists, among other places, Brasa and the Dahlia Lounge. In April she takes over in Cafe Juanita's kitchen. Cut to 2001: Jury's in. We visited twice in late February, finding the room to be its same old sophisticated self, a quiet blend of Northwest wood tones and white linen. The staff is unexceptionally fine, except for the degree to which it hangs together with obviously affectionate energy, which surpasses fine. This engaging vibe appears to emanate from the open kitchen, where diners can see the young Smith jockeying pans and managing her folks as capably as a seasoned pro. The whole place feels seasoned, a tone lent most by the supremely sophisticated menu. This is a sweetbreads-and-foie-gras kind of menu, more contemporarily Continental than Italian or Northwestern, but tweaked by lots of influences and thoroughly suffused with Smith's formidable creative energy. (This energy, even thrilling at times, almost compensates for the surplus of undefined terms on the menu—"farro," "yellowfoots," something called "bra cheese"—which is an annoyance meant to elicit sales pitches from waiters.) Here's one example of inventive verve. An appetizer of golden grilled squab ($16) came with a lobe of seared foie gras, a single dumpling of date-almond gnocchi, and a drizzle of Vin Santo. You never knew sweetness came in so many packages, nor depth through so many dreamy textures. The gnocchi itself was a sumptuous marvel paired with the savory fowl. A starter of veal sweetbreads ($11), saut饤 till crisp and served in olive oil with charred capers, was simpler yet equally profound. The capers lent the meat—as tender within as crisp without—just the right tang of brine, adding up to a dish as intelligent as it was delectable. Risotto Mantecato ($9 as a starter, $17 as dinner) deepened the arborio rice with caramelized shallots, Marsala, and curls of shaved Reggiano—a charmed combination that kept the palate interested all the way to the bottom of the plate (which is not always true of risottos). The risotto was cooked exactingly, a faultless execution that one soon learns to be the rule at Cafe Juanita. FAILURES IN SMITH'S kitchen were never, in our experience, plebeian errors in execution. They were instead almost laudable. One salad was so weird you wanted to stand and applaud the sheer balls of the one who came up with it. Tangles of cress, strips of fennel, Pecorino Toscano cheese, and sections of blood orange ($7) couldn't quite complement each other enough to harmonize into a salad, but it was a vivid effort. Similarly, a plate of terrific homemade tagliatelle pasta ($8, $15) was served with roasted beets, gorgonzola, and walnuts—a blend of too many strong personalities, tasting deeply of the depths of the earth. Too much vivid flavor? As criticisms go, I'll take it. One entr饠unexpectedly flavored seared sea scallops with ham hocks and yellowfoots ($25)—a variant of chanterelle mushroom, as it turns out—and the result was alluringly earthy shellfish. Slices of muscovy duck breast fanned out over a nutty, barleylike grain called farro ($22) were offered alongside an intense dollop of rich paste called mostarda d'uva, made of grape, quince, and nuts. This imaginative pairing was stunning. In another preparation, Smith had stuffed tender rabbit loin ($20) with those yellowfoots again, wrapped them in bacon, and served them with a crunchy crepe made of chickpeas and a little salad of cress and fennel. Hardly an inevitable combination, so why did it taste like it had been written in the stars? Why did nearly every imaginative whim of this chef seem to turn to culinary gold? It's a question I plan to research on many return visits. A list of fancy desserts finishes things off elegantly, particularly a caramelized lemon tart ($7) on a grandly rich crust. Licking our spoons, we concluded that Dow's old fan club had nothing to mourn: Cafe Juanita is still Cafe Juanita—and then some. In one novel respect, it's still very much 1977 inside: Smith has exiled all cell phones. (Count yours truly among the busted.) What an honor it is to announce the arrival of an important new chef, one who is not only supremely gifted but brave. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

 
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