This is a restaurant review - no recipes or pictures here, sorry!
For my husband and my collective birthdays (our birthdates are only 2 days apart), we decided on dinner at Cafe Juanita. We both adore Italian food, and while I had been once before, he had never been. My previous experience had been mixed; some items were stellar (the octopus!), while others were too salty (the rabbit plini) or I just didn't care for the dish (the roasted beets - loved them, but having them on a bed of almond butter tasted like eating the guts of a peanut butter and beet salad sandwich. No thanks).
I'm very happy to report that we had a fantastic, fabulous, near-perfect dinner. Which is saying something because I am very picky with fine dining - I expect everything to be perfect. The rest will be a blow-by-blow of each course, which my husband and I shared each of, lest you think I ate 6 courses all by myself.
We started with the carne cruda - essentially Wagyu beef tartar. Finely diced and nicely presented raw beef with a tiny soft-boiled quail egg on top, this had an exceptional balance of richness tempered by a light and lively acidity (orange? lemon? it tasted citrusy but I couldn't quite place it). It came on 3 very thin bread crisps, but I thought paired perfectly with the crackers provided on the bread tray. Now the bread tray actually deserves a little writing on its own: several varieties, thick and thin, very nicely arranged on a long platter, with some fantastic bread and crackers. Unfortunately, I didn't care for the puff cheese twists (a little dry) and the fried pasta dough with thin dried orange, while interesting, was too sharp and hard to truly be enjoyable. But everything else was lovely.
Next was the grilled octopus - I always order grilled octopus when it's available, it's so meaty and tasty, but difficult to prepare and get right, it can easily be too chewy, stringy, or dry. This was wonderfully tender, served on a silky-smooth bed of pureed chickpeas and a bright but not-too-harsh, finely chopped parsley-and-greens mix, with a fabulous olive oil and a little fresh garlic.
We moved onto small pasta plates - the hubby had a wonderful, simple, beef ragu with tagietelle, that was savory, salty (in a good way), and utterly delicious with a great tooth to the pasta. I had lamb caramelle - which is egg pasta sheets, filled with lamb and ground pine nuts, then twisted to look like little candies - on a base of silky-smooth gorgonzola, drizzled with fine olive oil and scattered with amazingly fresh pine nuts. Very rich, the very upper limits of salty while still being tasty, and very savory, and very delicious. Not sure I'd want a full plate of either of these, but the small half-plates were just perfect.
For the entree, we had the special - 5 quail halves, simply cooked with thyme (roasted, pan-fried? I couldn't tell), a few small bits of carmelized and nutty parsnips, but served in the most amazing sauce, based on what I believe is Vin Santo sweet Italian wine, and gobs of butter. The quail was perfect - crispy skin, tender and juicy, a little rare towards the bone, but really the sauce stole the show. I admitted that I'd like to eat it with a spoon, and the hubby later mentioned that if we were at home he would have licked the plate clean.
Dessert was a vanilla panna cotta with diced apple and quince. I'd never had panna cotta, but this was like eating slightly solidified, good whipped cream - very milky, light, exceptionally smooth, full of vanilla flavor, and only lightly sweet and a nice small size. The quince and apple compote worked, but the panna cotta was just fine on its own. Hubby had burnt sugar gelato - which tasted to him like dulce de leche, but I thought it was better than that, and tasted a lot like the brown butter brown sugar cookies from Cook's Illustrated, but in gelato form. In a word? Amazing. Our one complaint? All the other portions had been perfect - on the smaller size, but we were presented with three huge scoops of gelato, which is just way too much, and it's overwhelming.
I am ignoring one small mis-step. There are 3 side dishes that you may order with the meal: roasted fingerlings (which I'd had on my last visit, and found underwhelming - they were just small, roasted fingerlings with salt. I can do that at home.), brussels sprouts with pancetta (I'm not a huge fan of brussels sprouts). Or, roasted cauliflower, which I love, with lime and cumin, which I was dubious of given the Italian nature of our meal, but figured chef knows best. When it came, it was roasted perfectly, but both the cumin and the lime were seasoned with a very heavy hand, and the flavors didn't mesh with our quail, or anything we'd had earlier that night. I remain unsure of its place on the menu, but our waiter graciously whisked it away and removed it from the bill when he noticed we'd eaten only 2 pieces.
So that was our lovely, lovely meal, ended with Caffe Vita coffee (good, but nothing special), and 2 soft pomegranete jellies. We had wine, it was wonderful (thanks Mom and Jim), a lighter cab with lively acidity that went very nicely with our meal, but I don't know much about wine so I'll stop there. Service was great - very informative, available, but not intrusive, and there was a lovely bouquet of flowers waiting for me on the table (thanks love!). This will definitely not be my last time at this gem of a restaurant.