A gleaming southbound Metro train suddenly fills the window facing Main Street and then speeds down the rails, its shrinking form visible through another window on Alabama. I'm sitting at a table at Julia's Bistro that faces the corner of the giant panes. The station at this Midtown intersection is known as Ensemble/HCC, after the nearby theater and community college.
And what an edge Ensemble/HCC has in the Metro rail-stop popularity contest. T'afia, the Breakfast Klub and Julia's Bistro make this half-block one of the best restaurant destinations in the city. (I'm also a huge fan of Original New Orleans Po' Boy down the street.) And as far as bars go, there's the Big Top, Drink Bar, Bar Fly and the Continental Club. Even on a weekday at noon, the corner is a busy urban scene.
My lunchmate is supposed to arrive by train, so when one pulls in, I check out all the fresh arrivals. Three baseball caps. Two business suits. Four hip-looking women in sunglasses, none of them her.
She's running late, so I order a lobster quesadilla. I'm sure she will appreciate my thoughtfulness at having something on the table when she arrives. And if she's really late, I will eat it all to punish her.
But she arrives before the appetizer. The quesadillas are well made, with crisp, freshly pressed flour tortillas, lots of gooey, melted Oaxacan cheese, roasted corn kernels, chunks of red pepper and scallions. Unfortunately, you can't really taste the lobster -- which makes them a little pricey at $10 a plate.
"If you didn't know it was supposed to be lobster, they'd be great quesadillas," my tablemate remarks, prying the tortillas apart a tiny bit to confirm that there's actually lobster in there.
We order sandwiches. I get a gently flavored, potato chip-crusted red snapper fillet on a toasted roll with tartar sauce and lettuce. She gets a big honking ropa vieja wrap filled with shredded braised beef in a spicy creole sauce surrounded by black beans, onions, cilantro and sharp manchego cheese. Hers is way better than mine. The beef in the wrap tastes like Latino barbecue brisket. Luckily, we've already agreed to swap halves. I wolf the beefy wrap. She barely nibbles her share of the fish sandwich.
For sides, we sample sweet potato fries and yucca fries. The sweet potato shoestrings are excellent; but while the big thick yucca wedges are crispy on the outside, they're dense and tasteless in the middle, like deep-fried papier-mâché. We skip dessert, but Julia's is such a pleasant place to be on a sunny afternoon, we linger over our iced tea for a while after the table's cleared.
There's some upbeat Cuban music on the sound system, and the white-jacketed waiters seem to move to the beat. The walls are painted red grapefruit, pink grapefruit, watermelon and pomegranate in a Mondrian-esque pattern of rectangles. The chairs and barstools are a Metro-esque shiny, bare metal. The light shines in from the two big windows, and the scenery outside dominates the room. The people-watching is grand.
The first time I ate at Julia's Bistro, I barely noticed the windows. I was seated facing the other direction. And I was much more focused on the food. Four of us ordered appetizers and entrées, and there wasn't a bad dish in the bunch.
Watermelon ceviche was the first thing to really grip my senses. Scallops, shrimp, squid, octopus and little slivers of watermelon were soaked in a tart and tangy citrus bath, garnished with mint and served with fresh corn chips. But there was another bright flavor note in there that we couldn't quite put a finger on.
"Ginger," the waiter said with a knowing smile.
The other standout starter was a dish of crepes layered with the Mexican corn mushrooms called huitlacoche and some melted Oaxacan string cheese, then covered with cream sauce. The texture of the pancakes in the oozing cheese and cream sauce reminded me a little of Larry's cheese enchiladas. Of course, it was a bit more delicate than Velveeta and chili gravy -- in fact, the earthy corn fungus went brilliantly with the red wine one of my tablemates had ordered. Miniature empanadas with an avocado dipping sauce and a roasted beet salad rounded out the first courses.
There's a list of starches and a list of vegetables on the dinner menu. You pick two of them to match your entrées, or platos fuertes, as the menu describes them. But you don't always need to make decisions. The chef had already matched the sides to the best entrées I sampled.
The fabulous potato-crusted lamb chop, which was stuffed with garlic and sitting in a puddle of vanilla bean-flavored red wine reduction, was served with spinach and sautéed yucca. And the yucca tasted a lot better with something to lend it a little flavor. My favorite entrée, patito al horno, featured four slices of rare roast duck breast served on red mole. It came with the South American corn cakes called arepas and a line of baby carrots. The duck was a little chewy but very flavorful, and the rich chile sauce was an inspired backdrop.
Chef Jose Garcia has an excellent grasp of what makes this tricky cooking style work. Most important, he doesn't hit you over the head with it. The menu is Latin-inflected, but there are plenty of safe havens for meat-and-potatoes types. One of my dinner companions enjoyed a medium-rare beef tenderloin with portobello mushrooms, grilled potatoes and asparagus and was thankful for the straight-ahead cooking. But there are also plenty of flights of Nuevo Latino fancy -- like a dish of grilled mahimahi and fried plantains decorated with mango-black bean salsa.
For dessert we tried the torta de coco, a dense, tres leches-like cake made with sweetened coconut milk that was a little too heavy for us, considering the overstuffed stupor the rest of our meal had left us in. Tiny tastes of the chocolate mousse in Chambord sauce were a little easier to bear. Except for the coconut cake, the dessert menu seemed oddly disconnected from the Latin fusion concept. It offered an apple tart and cookies and milk, but no tropical fruit or exotic sorbets. Hopefully, this will change as the weather gets hotter.
Overall, the modern Latin cooking here is a sensible synthesis. He's harnessed the overexuberance of the Nuevo Latino movement and put it to work in a cooler and calmer fine-dining style. And the chic atmosphere of Julia's Bistro is perfectly suited to the food. It's a very cool place to eat lunch and hang out during the day. But if you want to sample Julia's Bistro at its best, return later. The platos fuertes don't come out until dinner.
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