Juliette Kitchen and Bar: A New Tradition
Not long after Pascal Olhats closed his 24-year-old flagship restaurant, Tradition, news came that another Frenchman, Christophe Eme of LA's Ortolan, was eyeing the space. That wasn't to be. Instead, the Newport Beach spot was inherited by husband-and-wife team John Hughes and Hyun-Sook (Juliette) Chung, who previously owned the Filling Station in Orange.
Their new restaurant, Juliette Kitchen and Bar, is different from Olhats' in every way. Gone are the stuffy white-linen tables and claustrophobic room dividers; everything has been stripped to the foundation and bare wood. The chairs are unvarnished and the seats made of wicker. The whole space now feels breezy and loose. If dining at Tradition felt as though you were wearing an overstarched suit, eating at Juliette Kitchen is the equivalent of putting on an unbuttoned beach shirt. Some of the customers seemed to follow that feeling; I saw a few blondes walking in wearing tank tops that might as well be swimsuits. If Juliette Kitchen weren't on a one-way street overlooking the toll road in the not-so-fun business end of Newport Beach, you'd think you were close to someplace sandy.
Juliette Chung, whom our own Shuji Sakai called the "one-woman bake shop" responsible for the county's best pumpkin pies, is effectively retired from the kitchen. She's still a presence at the new restaurant, but she has assumed the role of conductor instead of pit musician. The Chungs have hired Daniel Hyatt from Signal Hill's Delius (another husband-and-wife-fronted restaurant) as executive chef, and their pastry-chef daughter, Erica Choi, handles the desserts. To describe the food, I'm tempted to use the now-trite terms "farm-to-table" and "modern European with Asian influences," but I think I'll dub it nontraditional (pun intended).
Take the crudo, which is unlike any crudo or, in fact, any dish I've seen before. There's a scoop of slowly melting jalapeño-mango sorbet plopped on top. The frozen, sugary-sweet confection rests on a nest of daikon radish while a few micro shiso leafs play as a garnish. Underneath this bundle of veggies and barely peeking through is the fish, steak-thick slices of tuna arranged to resemble petals and submerged in a tomato dashi broth. Is it a crudo, or is it a soup? A salad, or dessert? I'm not sure. It was, however, refreshingly brisk, and it sent shivers up my spine just as the last great Mexican cocktail I had, the closest thing it resembled.
What you really need to know is you should order the majority of your meal—if not the entire thing—from the same list that has the crudo. These are small plates you'll want to share with those at your table. The farro risotto—a dish that's all about how the chewy micro beads of grain seem to playfully slip in and out from between your teeth—is close to perfect. But you need to eat it in small doses, as it's boldly cheesy, the richness barely being grounded by the stirred-in squash blossoms, Swiss chard and trumpet mushrooms.
The pig cheeks, served in a searing cast-iron pan with charred peaches, is pork for those who've explored every other part of the hog. Almost perfectly aerodynamic in shape and resembling Nerf footballs, they're shellacked in glaze; tear one apart with a fork, and there's a slight bit of resistance. The meat is tightly wound, firm at first, but finally surrendering into shreds pinker than pastrami but tasting almost as sweet as barbecue baby backs. Also ask for the smoked ocean trout salad—you'll not have a sharper, more complex plate of food involving arugula than this. The nose-tickling smokiness of the flaked fish, the cloying bent of the stewed cherries and tartness of pickled onions seem initially at odds with one another, but they somehow end up in harmony.
If I haven't spoken of Juliette Kitchen's main entrée plates much, it's because you probably needn't venture there. A roasted jidori chicken was dry and one-note, served with potatoes, turnips and a brown sauce that may just be here one season too early. And the fish stew, the most expensive item on the menu, seems a blander version of the bouillabaisse that might have been served in this very spot two years ago by Olhats.
Order instead another round of the small plate that pairs the chewy nubs of beer-braised octopus with the cotton-soft pillows of a well-done gnocchi, the two textures playing against each other. It's embedded with celery and olives in a slow-moving, thick paste of intriguing origin and tang—a dish that might prove a new tradition here—until, that is, Mrs. Chung decides to bake her pumpkin pies again.
This review appeared in print as "A New Tradition: Former Filling Station owners take over where Pascal Olhats left off with Juliette Kitchen."
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