Pick out a bottle of wine from
Juliette’s well-priced and
-stocked wine shop and pay
only $5 in corkage.
1000 Bristol St. North, Ste. 11,
949.752.5854 :: juliettenb.com
Twas a rare moment at Juliette Kitchen & Bar when a cocktail named Pisco Passion made me sit upright in my rustic, wicker-woven chair and really pay attention – to flavors, to surroundings and to the magical secret recipe of the two that comes together on few occasions. I like to refer to it as a state of food enlightenment, a gastronomic breakthrough moment that comes about unexpectedly, and that takes you entirely by surprise.
To be fair, this moment didn’t come out of nowhere; such instants are more likely to occur in places like Juliette, which combines the weathered and worn-in feel of an old barn with the sophistication of large crystal chandeliers and sleek lighting on the outskirts of Newport Beach. But it wasn’t just the sanguine ambiance that made my Pisco Passion taste so good; it was also the combination of ingredients that, at first blush, seemed incongruous: Oro pisco, passion fruit, thyme, and sugar. Pisco, a grape brandy made in the wine-producing regions of Chile and Peru, is a spirit that can vary widely in flavor based on its origin and grape varietal. The one used in the Pisco Passion was relatively mild, which helped put the passion fruit on center stage – a tart, tropical-tasting background for the next layer: thyme. Usually an herb associated with things like potatoes and meat, it was an unanticipated addition, but the earthy, smokiness of the herb took the fruit down like a boxer knocking out his opponent with a well-placed uppercut – if the downed boxer benefitted from the humiliation (yes, it’s a flawed metaphor…). I couldn’t remember passion fruit before thyme, and that was a good thing – a food enlightening thing.
These kinds of moments should be accompanied by something of similar inspiration. A selection of charcuterie was thus assembled, consisting of Creminelli wild boar salami, Fra’ Mani Salame Gentile and Angels duck prosciutto. The latter offered the most intense diversion, offering up a smaller, slightly gamier slice of heaven, and adding yet another dimension to the Pisco Passion experience. The Salame Gentile and the wild boar variety were consistent staples to anchor the plate, well made and dependable.
They were, however, a couple of the only things that were dependable at Juliette. While some of the menu revels in sweet simplicity, much of it is fraught with a long and complicated list of ingredients that is alternatingly mind-blowing (Pisco Passion) and confusing (see below). And then there is the problem of the rules – no substitutions, for example, and no mixing and matching with cheeses and charcuterie, which come in groups of three or five, leaving you forced to order six, eight or 10 different items to have both. We’re normally not bothered by restaurants that oppose alterations to their menu, believing as we do that food is a chef’s art, and we’d never think of asking an artist to tweak his work to make it more to our liking. We’d just find another artist. But in a case such as this, where the list of components in a dish stretch on inordinately at times, exponentially increasing the chance that there’s going to be something that someone doesn’t like, it would be reasonable to allow a modification here and there. The gnocchi, a small plate with a large laundry list, including braised oxtail, dried tomatoes, trumpet mushrooms, artichokes, pickled celery, radishes, and braising juice, could hardly be found underneath a pile of (albeit, tasty) rubble, but the good news is that once we unearthed the tender, plump dumplings, they were as light and airy as we could hope for. Pork belly with baby turnips, dried cherries, roasted tomatoes, celery, tamarind, and pistachios suffered with much the same schizophrenia, only the pork belly itself wasn’t memorable enough to stand up to its supporting acts.
Oddly, larger plates fared better when it came to a confluence of components. Roasted Jidori chicken with potato confit, baby turnips, pancetta, and sage was about as simple as it gets at Juliette, and it was the best dish we had there. With uncomplicated, earthy appeal, it had a sense of belonging in the rustic-modern atmosphere. Colorado lamb loin with salsify, leeks, pumpkin, dried cherries, black garlic, prosciutto, and sherry bordered on overly complicated, but was saved by the smooth pumpkin purée and perfect medium-rare temperature of the lamb.
There was a return to theme and order with dessert. Profiteroles with brown butter ice cream, bittersweet ganache and candied hazelnuts reminded us of the towers of sweet cream-filled pastries we consumed in large quantity in Italy, only these ones were bursting with rich, delicious ice cream. And the basil panna cotta with strawberry sorbet and shortbread was the exercise in austerity we had been seeking all along, perfect in its clean flavor and silky texture, leaving us to finish as we began: with a moment of food enlightenment.