9702 NE 120th Pl (Kirkland), 425-823-1505.
Dinner Tues-Sat 5-10 pm, Sun 5-9 pm.
When I grow up, I want to be Holly Smith.
As the chef/owner of Kirkland's Cafe Juanita, Smith has successfully pulled off what most chefs only fantasize about: She's got her own restaurant (located in a lovely spot with trees everywhere, on a quiet patch above Juanita Creek), and she's doing exactly what she wants to do in the kitchen, without a hint of compromise or preciousness. In Smith's case, exactly what she wants is Northern Italian cuisine--with, of course, local seasonal ingredients in mind (go now for springtime favorites: fava beans, ramps, morels, English peas).
The story of Cafe Juanita is well known among local foodies. For about 20 years, it was an upscale-ish neighborhood place, serving rustic Italian fare to faithful regulars; Smith took over in early 2000, after sous-chef stints at Dahlia Lounge and Brasa. She gave the place a facelift, made her menu changes, received rave reviews, and earned a rep as a talented businesswoman... all without having to offer happy-hour half-off appetizers, or trendy salad towers squirted with squeeze-bottle nonsense. There is no "Juanita-tini." There is no cigar bar. You will not be greeted at the door by a slightly condescending but extremely foxy 19-year-old. In short, there is nothing clichéd about Cafe Juanita, nothing reminiscent of yet another urban dining hotspot. (I apologize for using the word "hot- spot." Eew.) There's a kitchen garden out back, for crying out loud. This is where restaurants go when they lose their downtown leases and go to heaven.
I got excited just reading the menu--a menu that, despite unmistakable regional guidelines, is smart, imaginative, specific. You won't find a stitch of red sauce: We're talking lots of good olive oil and aged balsamic, various beans all over the place (pasta isn't the first priority in Northern Italy--this is the land of rice, polenta, and legumes), and fresh sheep cheese, fontina, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Notice treats such as seared foie gras with sour cherries ($17--I know, the foie gras surprised me too, but apparently there are often French or Austrian influences in recipes from Liguria, Lombardia, Piemonte, and the Veneto); a delicious smear of squab liver on thin crostini ($9), enhanced by a spot of fresh thyme and vin santo (sweet wine) syrup, served with a refreshing glass of Lillet Blanc; baccalà, AKA salt cod, with Taggia olives and a poached potato ($12--okay, so Sicily's representin' a little bit, too); guinea fowl ($22) with savoy cabbage; or scallops with Toscanello beans and wild ramps ($25). Somebody needs to try the braised rabbit with pancetta, greens, and a chickpea crepe ($21) and tell me how it is--it sounds fabulous, but on account of Fluffy Liao (R.I.P.), who I owned from age six through nine, I refuse to discuss this any further.
Excellent house-smoked trout ($9) is served warm and only slightly salty, so as not to overwhelm the fish; the accompanying pickled ramps, briny and cool, are an elegant surprise. Grilled octopus ($10) with fresh fennel, chickpea purée, capers, and a gorgeous green sauce brightened with lemon juice was by far my favorite--creamy textures and layers of flavors, all of them loosely bound together with Primolio olive oil. Tiny rectangles of goat cheese gnocchi ($10/$19) require no chewing: Just let them dissolve on your tongue, so the soft tang of goat cheese goes up against crisp bits of pancetta and tender fava beans, all of it commingling in a shallow bath of butter and flavorful stock.
Saddle of lamb ($26) is served with sliced Jerusalem artichokes and pine nuts, hearty and simple--my lamb was a bit dry and more cooked than I usually like it, but was fine when paired with the Jerusalems, which have a pleasant, nutty, sweet finish. Whole roasted fish (market price) changes frequently, but try the branzino if you can--Italian striped sea bass, freshly FedExed to Cafe Juanita: crackly skin dusted with coarse salt, and firm white flesh with a mild flavor, moist and tasting like the ocean. There was a pink sunset in Kirkland, and I was eating Mediterranean fish, still jetlagged from a long journey; somehow I felt as if I was in exactly the right place.