A wintery birthday dinner at Cafe Juanita

I have been treated to some amazing meals in my life, but last night’s meal at Cafe Juanita was without a doubt one of  my top five dining experiences. Of my life.  Cafe Juanita has been on my radar since I read about Holly Smith’s food in the October 2007 issue of the now defunct and much missed Gourmet Magazine.  That article featured delicious, hearty dishes for an October meal, featuring the same deeply flavored vegetables and meats that were crafted for us last night.  Since then I’ve watched her battle (and crush) Cat Cora on Iron Chef America, be nominated for James Beard awards, and compete (and get kicked off far too soon) from The Next Iron Chef.

But that was Fate’s way of telling her to hold tight, to stay in Kirkland, because a Very Important Person would be moving there in the next few years who desperately needed to taste her dishes.  I’m so incredibly thankful that she’s still here, rather than in New York, cooking on tv.  Because her meal made my year, just ten days into it.  The salad was perfectly dressed and topped with toasted breadcrumbs rather than croutons, the octopus had the most amazing texture, the steak was perfectly cooked, and oh my god the rabbit.  I had never had rabbit, but I’m so glad I ordered it.  This is my tip of the day:  If you have never had something that slightly or severely makes you nervous about trying, order it at the best restaurant ever.  Don’t try oysters or foie gras or rabbit for the first time at a mediocre restaurant.  Try it somewhere that receives James Beard awards, or at least crazy high accolades from yelp or chowhound.  If you, like me, decide to try rabbit for the first time at Cafe Juanita, you won’t know what hit you.  You’ll eat the most succulant, dark meat of your life.  Juicy beyond belief.  And stuffed with a duxelle of mushrooms that soak up all those divine juices.

It really got me thinking how the chef (and equally so the Sous Chef, Lauren Thompson, who we spotted cooking in the open kitchen as we were leaving) made my birthday one that I will never forget.  I think it’s amazing that a stranger can have that much influence over your life, simply by the product they produce.  And it turned my thoughts to my wedding photography, because that’s what I strive for; to craft a product (my images) for a stranger’s special day that is so wonderful that it will stay with them for years and years, just like this birthday meal will stay with me.  So as odd as it sounds, this amazing meal motivates me more than ever to keep improving upon my photography, so I am sure to create something brilliant that will make a lasting impression.  Who knew a braised rabbit would have that effect?

The recipes that accompanied the 2007 Gourmet Magazine story on Chef Holly Smith can be found here.

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