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Cafe Juanita, VERY DISAPPOINTING

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Hey fellow eaters,

My bf and I are LA chowhounders. We just got back from a visit in Seattle and I absolutely had to write this post. We went to Cafe Juanita after reading so many favorable reviews, but we were sorely, miserably disappointed. Here's a run-down of the meal, dish by dish (We went w/ his family so we were able to get quite a few things)

1. Seared Foie Gras with Bing Cherries, Candied Ginger and Cocoa nibs
Tasty, but it's pretty hard to make foie gras taste bad. The bing cherries were just these lumps on the sides - they didn't complement the foie gras at all, and weren't delicious on their own.

2. Veal Sweetbreads with Fried Capers and Parsley, Ligurian Olive Oil 16.
Ok, but definitely not as creamy or tender as sweetbreads ought to be. Maybe it was over-sauteed? The capers were a bit bitter when fried. Again, I really didn't think they made a good accompaniment.

3. Carne Cruda of Wagyu Beef with Parmigiano Reggiano 14.
Our waiter was bragging about how the Wagyu Beef they used was 7/8 Wagyu strain, but honestly, it just tasted like a good but not delicious steak tartare. The cheese on top was a bit waxy for me.

4. House Made Trofie with Basil, Potato and Merv's Green Beans 14./24.
It was tasty, but I've made better pasta myself at home. Actually, the pesto sauce they used was a bit overpowering, which got in the way of my being able to enjoy the texture of the trofie.

5. Rabbit Raviolini with Sage Butter 13./22.
The raviolini were even smaller than I expected - so small, in fact, that I wasn't able to get a single intense bite of rabbit. The texture of the pasta itself was slightly rubbery.

6. Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Ligurian Chickpea Crepe, Pancetta and Porcini 30.
This is where the meal started getting truly disappointing. I think they were going for several preparations of rabbit on the same plate, which is a wonderful concept. However, the execution was mediocre at best. The rabbit breast was dried up; the rabbit leg was ok but tasted like chicken. In fact, all the pieces of rabbit tasted like chicken, truly devoid of the slight gaminess that we love in rabbit.

7. Fish of the Day - daily preparation
We had some sort of baked trout - it was bland, and nothing better than what we could do on a grill if we slapped down some trout and rubbed it with lemon.

8. Braised Wagyu Beef Cheek
This was probably the worst of them all. I think that they must have seriously overcooked this piece of meat, because it was nowhere near as tender or flavorful as a braise should be. Also, they were really heavy-handed with the salt - I had to drink mouthfuls of water in between bites! Finally, the sauce reduction for the meat was overly reduced - a syrupy unflavorful brown glaze that was again too salty.

9. Pralus Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ninety Farms Stracchiatelle Gelato and Cherry Vinegar Reduction10
What a long winded name for what was basically a flourless chocolate cake with a dollop of gelato that tasted like American ice cream.

10. Ninety Farms Raspberry Creme Bruleé 8.
This was definitely messed up! They scorched the top of the creme brulee until was black all around, and it tasted of gas from the flame torch.

11. Gelato - coffee and almond
We got two kinds. The coffee gelato had small ice crystals in it! The waiter took extra care to tell us that they had their own fancy gelato machine and that the coffee gelato was the best he'd ever had in his life! I just about cried from frustration when I took my first bite. The almond gelato, on the other hand, was probably the saving grace of the meal. Dense, luscious, and intensely flavored, it was as good as the gelato I've had in Rome and Florence.

12. Plate of cookies
Yuck - the biscotti was not crispy; it tasted stale and chewy. I was really surprised at how bad it was, considering that the double-baking of the cookie makes it difficult to mess up. There were some decent meringues, and some tasty chocolates. But overall, really ordinary.

So, that's it. We were at dinner w/ my bf's parents and his little sister in order to celebrate her birthday, so I put on a happy face. But if my bf and I had been alone, we would've asked to speak with the owner because NOTHING lived up to their reputation or prices.

Let me make this absolutely clear: it's not that we just had one or two bad things among many delicious things; rather, we didn't have a single delicious item! Some of the dishes were good, like the foie gras and the tartare, but nothing was excellent! Nothing! I'm still wincing at the thought. For 400 plus dollars, I wished we would've taken our money to Union, which we really liked.

Cafe Juanita was by far the worst "fancy/nice restaurant" experience of my life. I guess I'm looking for closure, now. Have you guys experienced the same level of mediocrity at Cafe Juanita, dressed up in the buzzwords of "seasonality" and the now chic "Northern Italian cuisine"? Or, did we just get screwed?

Fellow Chowhounders - speak up! And please, don't just say that you've eaten there and it was "delicious" or "divine." I want detailed descriptions of exactly why you found a particular dish to be good! If no one wants to defend the restaurant, then I hope this serves as a warning to those who are thinking of having a meal at Cafe Juanita.

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  1. Thanks for your honest feedback/downhill alert. What are your favorite places in LA land? TIA

    1. Have you tried Trellis? If so, how does it compare to Cafe Juanita in your opinion?

      1. When I ate there three weeks ago I decided it was one of the best meals of my life. I had the octopus appetizer. I order octopus anytime I see it on a menu, and I was not disappointed in the least. The texture was wonderful, the chickpea puree was rich, and the herb sauce added a nice acidity.

        My partner had the quail with leek goat cheese tart and strawberries. She said it was one of the best dishes she's ever eaten and an unexpected, but wonderful, combination of ingredients.

        Next I had the risotto with squash blossoms and a poached egg. It was the best risotto I've ever tasted. It was incredibly rich and the texture was perfect. The others in my party shared the Tagliatelle with morels. They wished they'd ordered more than they did.

        Lastly, I had the rabbit. I did find it to be salty, but I also found it to be incredibly rich and a nice contrast of flavors. The leg was wrapped in pancetta and stuffed with porcini, while the tenderloin was simply grilled. I thought this dish was successful in that you got one half that was rich, fatty, smoky, and salty, and one preparation that was simply to expose the flavors of tender rabbit. I loved it.

        Perhaps I sound a bit enamored with the place, but in fact, I am. I went with a party of five, all of which absolutely loved it. Additionally, I'm going back with four more of my friends next month because I enjoyed it that much.

        It's not to say a kitchen can't have an off night - I'm certain it happens. Having said that, I do believe they deliver an exceptional experience with outstanding food.

        2 Replies
        1. re: dylinw

          Hi dylinw,

          Thanks for your reply. It's funny that in our Cafe Juanita experiences, there wasn't much overlap in what we ordered. I'd love to hear about your next dinner there if you get more of the dishes I had.

          1. re: panglosspig

            I have a food allergy, so my choices are usually more limited compared to others. Having said that, I think most people at my table ordered octopus, rabbit, and risotto/tagliatelle. One person had the soup and loved it...

            As I said earlier, I think kitchen's can have off nights, and it's clear to me that a) they were having an off night or b) ...I'm not sure...

            If I remember, I'll post back to this thread after eating there again, but it's not until Sept 13th.

        2. I have had the rabbit and it is my favorite dish. I was there just this past week and the risotto that one reviewer below accurately reviews as well as the goat cheese gnocchi with lamb sugo, which was out of this world. The lamb reduction could not have been more savory. The risotto was done to perfection with just the right texture and amount of liquid. My partner was thrilled with his crispy skinned branzino--mild yet rich.. The green beans with homemade pancetta were tasty. It was a birthday dinner, but I had not notified the restaurant of this. Our keen-eyed waiter must have seen birthday cards on the table, so when the truffle cake the complaining reviewer so denigrates came out for the birthday boy, it had a lit candle on top. My partner is a serious chocoholic and loved the cake. I'm not changing my mind that this is a destination restaurant and one of the best in our area. .

          1. link

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            Cafe Juanita
            9702 NE 120th Place, Kirkland, WA 98034-4206

            1. Wow!! It is sad that you had such a terrible meal. Hmm...such negativity! My wife and I have been to Cafe Juanita 7 to 8 times a year for the past 4 or 5 years and feel that Holly Smith is one of the truly exceptional chefs in the Seattle area. If you were that dissatisfied, you would have done the restaurant a service by pointing out the details that you have so eloquently expressed here. Have your in-laws eaten here before? I will try to compare my dining experiences to yours. I have tasted many of the dishes that you have eschewed. I will state, as a previous person has said, that every restaurant will have on off night. I have not found that to be true at this establishment. But, no one's perfect! Here we go!

              1. Seared Foie. Washington is known for the most wonderful flavorful cherries. I have had a variation of this dish every time I have been in and can not say that I have ever wanted to send it back. Maybe, cherries aren't your thing? How have you had Foie prepared in the past?

              2. Veal sweetbreads. So wonderful. Crispy is the way this dish is served. No one I know likes their sweetbreads to be undercooked.

              3. Wagyu beef. This is a dish that we have not tried. I can tell you that the cheese that you say is waxy is imported from Italy and this restaurant is one of the few in this area to have it. I have enjoyed it many times. Never considered it waxy.

              4. Trofie. To each their own. If you can make better pasta at home, that's great. Where do you live? I will gladly come by and taste yours. Cafe Juanita excels in this area. Again, I have never had a pasta here that I could say my wife couldn't do better at home. BTW, my wife is a great cook and can make pastas with the best of the them.

              5. Rabbit Raviolini. You are correct in saying that the size is small and that you wish there were more. I have said so every time I have ordered this dish. This dish does have a wonderful flavor of rabbit in every small bite. SAGE BUTTER!! YUM!! Enough said.

              6. Rabbit braised in Arneis. This restaurant's signature dish. The recipe has been printed in Gourmet magazine. My favorite dish on the menu. I have never once had this dish where I can say that the rabbit tasted like chicken!! If that was the case, I would have definitely at that point ended the meal. I would have gotten up and asked my waiter (Jim,always) for my coat and proceeded to leave. I can understand wanting to be conservative and not make a fuss but, at these prices, why wouldn't you? This dish is as advertised. My wife and friends have tried to replicate it at home and it seems that secretive Holly has left out a few ingredients.

              7. Fish. I have not had this dish. The branzino is wonderful I have heard.

              8. Braised beef cheek. Melt in your mouth goodness. I am sorry that yours was not as tasty.

              The desserts and gelato I will comment on as one. The best gelato I have ever eaten is made at this restaurant. Malt gelato is truly a great thing. Thank you Holly for making it full time now. I can not comment further on your desserts, since I have not had the ones that you ordered.

              What wines did you order? Were they matched to each course?

              I am sorry that you did not have a wonderful experience. This is truly one of the treasures of our community. I hope that you have sent a note to Holly about your horrible evening, and I am sure that she will try to make your in-laws appreciative if they ever decide to come back. What other restaurants did you dine at in our area? I am glad that you had a good time at Union. My meals there have not been a success like yours. But, that is another post.

              6 Replies
              1. re: bobert1006

                I do want to comment on an earlier reviewer's negative comments about the "defenders" of Cafe Juanita. Everyone knows that any restaurant can have an "off" night. And, of course, food is such a subjective thing that what's great for one person may be not so great for another.

                The issue is whether a bad night is an anomaly or a trend. If someone has had a bad experience, it's worth knowing whether others who have eaten there recently have also had bad experiences or good. Quite frankly, I haven't tried out Harvest Vine yet because of several recent negative reviews. Most of us only have so much money for high end dining and if too many people have had a bad experience lately I'd rather not take the chance. So it's unfortunate that our visitors from LA had a bad experience but judging from what others have said and the recent review in the PI, I[d guess it's an anomaly of an otherwise great restaurant.

                1. re: bobert1006

                  Hi there,

                  Thanks for such a descriptive post! I'll try to answer all of your questions - let me know if I leave anything out -

                  1. I've had seared foie gras w/ cherries at other restaurants, but the cherries were much better - as I mentioned in my last post, the cherries at Cafe Juanita tasted too mushy inside.

                  2. I never said that the sweetbreads were undercooked, so why the assumption there? I do think there's a general consensus that sweetbreads should be creamy - these were not; they were the hardest sweetbreads I've ever had.

                  4. The pasta was ok, but again, having ordered both the trofie and the raviolini, I would be surprised to hear that the restaurant "excels" in both.

                  5. I did not think that there was an intense rabbit bite in every raviolini. It was more "rabbity" than the rabbit entree, but I had to work really hard to discern the rabbit.

                  6. Why didn't I leave? I wanted to, but it was his little sister's birthday. We were out of towners so where would we have gone? His little sister and his parents, btw, also thought that the meal was sub-par, though they weren't as vehemently opposed to it was my bf and I were.

                  As far as wine goes, my bf and I shared one glass of red wine to go w/ the beef cheek, and his father did the same. No one else at the table ordered wine. It was extremely delicious (sorry,but I don't remember the details). Anyway, we didn't go to Cafe Juanita for their wine.

                  Again, my bf and I had a truly bad experience at Cafe Juanita. If I had just had a so-so time like Freida, I would not have taken so much of my own time to write a long review about it. I would've given the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, as I'm well aware of its reputation (that's why we went in the first place!) But I felt compelled since almost every dish was unsatisfactory in one way or another.

                  1. re: panglosspig

                    Having not eatten at Cafe Juanita [but I still want to, despite this thread] I am really only qualified to comment on one thing OP said:

                    "I've had seared foie gras w/ cherries at other restaurants, but the cherries were much better - as I mentioned in my last post, the cherries at Cafe Juanita tasted too mushy inside"

                    We moved up here from LA last fall. This spring, I was AMAZED by the number and variety of cherries available at the market. Right now I have maybe 5 different types tucked away in my freezer. Living in LA and despite going to the Hollywood Farmer's market every week for years, I had never been exposed to so darned many types of cherries. As I tried every single type I saw at the U-District market, I discovered that some were just not to my taste. Some of these cherries were simply raved about by others but for me, eeh. A good example would be Rainers. I find them a bit mushy and bland. I'd take a Sweetheart or a Lapin over a Rainer any day. But thats me. My husband consumed Rainers by the bag full.

                    Knowing as I do now about the multitude of cherries out there, I could never fault a restaurant about its selection on a particular week of a particular cherry.

                    Restaurants have bad nights, individual chowhounds have different taste buds. What is yummy to one [ex: almost any cheese to my older pup] is poison to another [ex: all cheese to my youngest pup]. This does not mean one is a better 'hound or foodie than another nor does it mean the restaurant is awful. I concurr strongly with the people who say if OP felt something was "off" they should say so. It can be done discretly in connection with a trip to the loo or whatever. Any good manager---be it of a high end restaurant or your local Starbucks-- wants to know. Continued success of the business--especially in harder economic times- depends on keeping up standards.

                    1. re: jenn

                      Even cherries vary, depending on how fresh they are, what the weather conditions were, what part of the season they were harvested in, etc. A good Rainier should be slightly crisp-ish and with a lot of flavor. Don't give up on them yet--try again next year. My favorite vendor in the U-Farmers market is Martin Family Orchards.

                      1. re: PAO

                        occasionally (but not lately, sadly) Tilth offers housemade Rainier-infused and Bing-infused brandy; depending on the batch these can be amazing.

                  2. re: bobert1006

                    I did the maiden voyage at Cafe Juanita recently and enjoyed the experience very much with one caveat--too much salt. In the style of the OP and others, I'll go blow-by-blow.

                    We had the Poached Sky Valley Egg with Bottarga di Muggine, Yellowtail stuffed Peperoncini Piccante as an appetizer, an inventive and lovely combination that reminds me of some of the better dishes served at the (few) French haute cuisine places I have been (such as Fleur de Sel in NYC). Salty for sure, but you'd expect that with cured fish and bottarga. We also shared the Heirloom Tomato Panzanelle with Bufala Mozzarella--very nice, but not exceptional; salt was in check on the greens.

                    Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Ligurian Chickpea Crepe, Pancetta and Porcini (the waiter expressly told us it was the signature dish): quite nice--I did not detect any of the over- or under-cooked issues in the various pieces that the OP complained of. However, the salinity was really edging over the line here...it distracted from the great technique and flavor composition that went into the dish--really too bad.

                    Branzino--one of my favorite fishes, and I was encouraged that it was not Chilean as the waiter explained it had been swimming in the Medditerranean the day prior before being fed ex-ed to Kirkland--a huge hit on the locavore score, I know. This specimen was small, cooked whole with a sort of cantouloupe sauce, and delicious, though again salty, but to be fair you'd expect that from this fish. Couldn't tell if additional salt was added.

                    We needed white, and I can't get into Italian whites for some reason, so we drank a bottle of Boudreaux "unfiltered" chardonnay...not really my style of Chardonnay; it was neither creamy or mineral. It was honey colored, almost like a dessert wine. Not terribly sweet, but I prefer more burgundian or sonoma co. styles. I took the waiter's advice on this but I should have looked closer at the bottle when presented with it. My bad.

                    Dessert was the Pralus Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ninety Farms Stracchiatelle Gelato and Cherry Vinegar Reduction: decadent and fudge-like as expected. My wife thought the acidity of the reduction didn't quite pull it off; I disagreed; solid sweet.

                    Quaint yet stylish atmosphere; great service. Hearing some music of my own collection from a few years back (RJD2, Thievery Corporation) mixed seamlessly with breezy jazz restaurant BS made me feel at once warm, comfortable, and aging.

                    IMO, the salt thing keeps Cafe Juanita from being amongst my favorite area splurge places (e.g. Crush, Canlis, Rover's). I guess the chef really has a bent to her palate; we all do I suppose. I like salt too ( i eat Tim's salt and vinegar chips on occaision) but it was clearly a bit much for North Italian inspired fine dining at this cost and cachet.

                    p.s. When the check came I thought it reasonable ($170 before tax/tip). It arrived with little chocolates...with sea salt, of course. (I liked them).

                  3. My husband and I went to Cafe Juanita for our anniversary last month, and I didn't post because we had neither a fabulous nor a horrible experience, and I would rather not be slapped down for saying anything negative about the place. However, given this thread...

                    Service, including the sommelier, was wonderful. No complaints there, although I felt like we were encouraged to overorder. I don't eat as much as most people, though.

                    We had the prosecco/parmesan pairing, the octopus, a soup with greens and cheese (very light), tagliatelle with morels, green beans, steak and the rabbit. The pasta was some of the best I've ever had, but the green beans I thought were overcooked, and the rabbit was just far too rich for me. I might have managed it if the side salad of sharp greens hadn't been completely doused in truffle oil, but it all came off as much too heavy, especially at the end of the meal. I ate almost none of it, and the waitress did not offer to box it for me.

                    The creme brulee with fresh raspberries was extremely wonderful, though!

                    Overall, I thought it was a nice place, and we probably should have ordered differently...but we probably won't be back. For that kind of money I can eat somewhere else at least twice.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Freida

                      This is a restaurant where comments are definitely welcomed and responded to. Living on the Eastside, it is definitely our special occasion restaurant. The only thing that ever disappointed us was a cheese plate. We mentioned that it just wasn't up to everything else we had had and the manager apologized and removed it from the check. Definitely a classy response.

                      As to being able to eat other places cheaper, that is definitely true, but this is one restaurant where I never feel that I have wasted my money.

                    2. Both restaurants mentioned in this post: Harvest Vine & Cafe Juanita, I dined at over 2 yrs. ago ( both on more than one occasion) and have not returned to either. I had high expectations of the food due to the media reviews and I was disappointed in both cases...I felt they were over-hyped for the quality and creativity of the food we ordered......moreso regarding Harvest Vine.
                      Recently I returned to a restaurant I had a similar experience with a few years ago: Nell's at Greenlake. I had a very delightful dining experience there this time. There were 6 of us and we all ordered different appetizers, entrees and 3 desserts. The dishes offered were delightfully & seasonally perfect in their choices of ingredients. The flavors were delicious, combined creatively and the plates were beautiful. The Arugula salad w. Speck & Figs a stand-out...as was the seared Sea Scallops with Grilled Radicchio....and the fresh apricot ice cream served over a blueberry crisp was our favorite dessert.Their apricot ice cream was remarkable.

                      1. Ok, so I'll speak up. My wife and I went to Cafe Juanita last night for our 10th anniversary. We've never been there and live across the lake in Seattle. A special event for us would find us ar Rovers or Le Gourmand, but we wanted to try Cafe Juanita because of all we've heard.
                        I'll take it from the top with 5:15 PM reservations:

                        Lambrusco with Fra'Mani salame. The cold lambrusco was a nice start on an 80 degree Seattle evening. The salami was tasty and tiny; Just enough to entertain the palate. I did however want about a 1/4 pound of this. When I have a hankering for that much, I'll have to go down to Armandino Batali's place.

                        This gave us a chance to look over the menu and plot our course. Kristen, our server was quite attentive, but not always there (a good thing). She announced the night's specials and answered our questions. Despite yellowtail as a special, I knew I had to try the octopus, and Jackie went with the quail for appetizers.

                        The octopus was cooked well, not even the tentacle ends were rubbery, or dry, and it had a slight lobster quality. The green sauce and chickpea puree made a good accompaniment. A bit like a fresh spinach pesto with a peppery olive oil. Snappy, yet not enough to overpower the octopus.

                        The quail appetizer with a bite of nectarine and a little piece of the goat cheese tart was very nice together. The quail was not overdone. The three were simply perfectly paired. A feat reapeated with each dish.

                        Next was the raviolini. They were small, they were tasty. Had they been ravioli, the rabbit may have come across stronger. Much like the salami, my only wish was for more. On to the entres...

                        Saddle of Oregon lamb and Braised rabbit. Oh my goodness! The rabbit came with a sliced tenderloin (not overdone), and a hindquarter wrapped in pancetta. Just a dip of the tenderloin in the Arneis reduction, and I said to Jackie "you're going to have to try this!" It only got better. The dark meat was oh so moist, and a bite so good it the best bite of food in recent memory. The accompanying mixed greens and sliced pancetta were separated by a little slice of chickpea crepe and were lightly coated with a vinaigrette that was also very complex and tasty. I began wishing I had a notepad and a pen. The lamb was cooked perfectly and the sauce with it had an anise like quality that was quite mysterious in itself in a good way. The chickpea puree worked well with the lamb. On the side we had the spicy roasted cauliflower with pine nuts and lime. This little dish was a gem. Who’d a thunk?

                        Dessert was taking a while when Kristen came back and said the crème brulee we ordered wasn't perfect, so they were preparing another. Jackie is the connoisseur of all things burnt and this was the best she'd had. Detail? Descriptions? Even the butter was perfect. European style, fresh, unsalted. It tasted like a Skagit valley pasture in the morning. (Yes the butter) They brought back the bread plate refilled 3 times. The bread and crackers are made there and I could dine on them all night with the house Arneis. There was even a candle in our dessert with a wish for a happy anniversary.

                        So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and compare last evening's meal with the one that up until then, was my favorite. That was a five course affair that was a fundraiser done by 3 chefs. (Saleh Joudeh, Thierry Rautureau, and Ludger Szmania) I still remember that as a culinary highlight for both Jackie and I. Last night was just as good.

                        After eating there last night, I would not think that this place could have been so sideways, to have served up the meal you describe. Defend the restaurant? Na, you my fellow scribe are clearly out of touch. Respectfully...

                        1. The restaurant must have had an off night. From my experiences, I think it's one of the top restaurants in the region. Certainly one of the most innovative. I'm posting tonight at http://thelunacafe.com after a year-long exploration of NW desserts and Cafe Juanita's Pralus Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ninety Farms Stracchiatelle Gelato & Cherry Vinegar Reduction made the list. I'd like to do a deeper exploration of pastrey chef, Jason Patel's artistry later in the year. He's on the cutting edge.