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Who Needs Marriage Counseling When There's Cafe Juanita?

A celebratory dinner shows Chef Holly Smith deserves all the accolades bestowed over the years.

YEAR 11 was a tough one in the union that is my marriage. We’ve faced the challenges that come with unemployment, self-employment and the plain old doldrums of marriage. Swinging back up from those difficult places, we knew we needed to celebrate big. For us, that meant eating a great meal at the apex of fine dining establishments -- .

In March, I had the pleasure of interviewing owner and award-winning chef Holly Smith. Beyond excellent food, Smith made it clear that Cafe Juanita was all about great service, striving to be in the top tier of restaurants nation-wide in this category. And I’m happy to say that Cafe Juanita delivers on that goal.

From the moment we walked into the elegant, yet comfortable, converted house, our wants and needs were attended to in a friendly and thoroughly professional manner. Water glasses were studiously kept full, napkins were refolded during restroom trips and staff was more than happy to expound on the amazing menu.

The food is inspired by northern Italy, with strong roots in the organic Pacific Northwest. Therefore, our local seasons and ingredients dictate much of the menu’s nuances.

Since it was our first experience as diners at Cafe Juanita, we came hungry and planned to order as much as possible. The menu is divided into aperitivi (drinks and a bite), antipasti (appetizers), salads, pasta, entrees (fish, meat, fowl) and contorni (side vegetables).

We tried to contain our growling stomachs as we begged our server for some pointers, “How much do people usually...?”

“Usually order?” our server finished my sentence. She’s obviously heard that question before and she was ready with some answers in the form of suggestions. She praised the maltagliati, non-uniform strips of fresh pasta with morels, English peas and house-made minted ricotta.

So, we ordered it -- and the veal sweetbreads, a cherry-apricot salad, the risotto, a saddle of lamb with the most delectable strawberry-topped tart, and the restaurant’s signature braised rabbit. And since we were celebrating, we each started the meal with an aperitivi -- Prosecco and nibs of Parmigiano Reggiano for me and a Chartreuse-based cocktail with smoked bone marrow bruschetta for my husband.

EACH COURSE was a party for the senses. Fried capers burst open like flowers, adding their briny tang to the buttery sweetbreads -- the popcorn shrimp of offal goodness. And, finally, a restaurant risotto that contained enough Parmigiano Reggiano to make Italy proud. If only the red wine-based risotto made a pretty photo, you’d all be immediate converts.

The pasta was everything our server promised, with a subtlety of flavors that only a great chef could achieve. In a lesser restaurant, there would have been bacon on top.

We enlisted the assistance of wine director Dawn Smith to choose the perfect pairing for our entrees. It’s always better to ask an expert and Dawn’s charming personality leaves little room for stuffiness. She is friendly and approachable, so diners need not be shy about asking for help.

She paired my lamb with the 2009 Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola grapes. It created an effortless relationship with the ruby rounds of lamb, arranged to look like the bottom wings of a butterfly under the fantastic strawberry-topped tart.

The 2006 Reversanti Barolo provided the fireworks for the braised rabbit, so moist and tender with a rich pancetta and porcini sauce. For those unfamiliar with rabbit, imagine the very best roasted chicken and gravy on the planet. That’s how Holly Smith rolls -- she takes the best and makes it better.

Three hours passed pleasurably by; the creekside foliage outside the picture windows providing a rare backdrop for a restaurant meal. The food and wine started to take their toll, but with only one more course to go, we sucked it up as best as possible and ordered dessert.

We shared the olive oil torta topped with pistachios, sweet cherries and a scoop of vanilla gelato. Cafe Juanita staff pays attention to reservations that mention a special occasion and provide a classy touch when possible -- in this case, a celebration candle and a sweet wine with hints of honey and apricot.

The kitchen and wait staff are so well trained that this brightest highlight of a meal occurred on a night when the boss wasn’t even in the kitchen.

It turns out that Cafe Juanita and Chef Holly Smith deserve all the accolades bestowed over the years. Cafe Juanita is the perfect place to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or just another day on this earth.

For some marriages, Cafe Juanita might even be enough to get them through to another year. 

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