One of the hottest restaurants in Seattle for a while now has been JuneBaby, in the Ravenna neighborhood. We’d been reading about it for years, and on a recent trip to the city we decided to pay a visit. Because we ourselves are June babies, we felt somewhat obligated to see what all the fuss was about. And there’s been a lot of fuss: earlier this year, chef Edouardo Jordan took home not one, but two James Beard Awards, widely considered the highest honors in the restaurant industry. He was crowned Best Chef: Northwest and JuneBaby earned the award for Best New Restaurant in the country, making Jordan the first African-American ever to win that national category.
Right up front, we just have to put it out there: as black people, we’ve had our hearts broken many times by restaurants in other regions of America – or even in other nations – holding themselves out as serving “soul food.”
If you grew up black in the South, or your parents did – if your people are from there – then you know what we mean: a supposedly down-home Southern restaurant that tastes nothing like the South. Fried chicken that doesn’t deliver. Mac and cheese that is too fancy for its own good. Sweet tea that is cloying or watery. And don’t get us started on the peach cobbler.
Northerners, Westerners, and those not from America might fall for it. Might even like it. But we know better.
So we arrived at JuneBaby with some skepticism. And the wild somewhat irrational hope that this time would be different.
The restaurant’s website makes its aims clear: “The term soul food originated during American slavery to not only describe a type of cuisine but also a period of time of oppression and overcoming hardships. It is traditionally cooked and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States and merges influences from West Africa, Western Europe, and North America.”
True that – but could such food really be delivered from a small storefront in the Pacific Northwest? That’s a long way from home.
Only one way to find out.
Which is how we found ourselves standing on a sidewalk in a cozy residential neighborhood in Seattle one late afternoon.
JuneBaby doesn’t really take reservations, and most of the diners there are walk-ins; the restaurant will take a handful of reservations for parties of 8-12 each night. So that means that most of us will find ourselves waiting in line for a seat. Which actually isn’t so bad. We went on a brilliantly sunny autumn Wednesday, and had a nice time chatting with the young friendly crowd in line.
We arrived at 5:05p and were seated at 5:20 (the perfect weather meant that the small patio for outside seating was available, which definitely helped).
Lots of early arrivals opted to sit at the bar – we chose a table indoors instead. The restaurant’s interior is simple and casual: no tablecloths, blond wood tables and chairs. It’s an intimate space, with rock music the primary soundtrack overhead.
The first difficult decision we faced was a profound one: buttermilk biscuits with pure cane syrup, or cast iron flint cornbread and sorghum molasses?
Our excellent server said it was a close call, but she’d go with the biscuits. Sold! Because here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as a bad biscuit. There are only good ones and great ones. Some of our relatives swear that the best biscuits have to be made in the South – the water is different, the flour is better, there’s no way to replicate them anywhere else. We hear them, but we’ve polished off plenty of them in far-flung locations. So bring it on.
Our order came quickly, and as we sliced into the little tower of biscuit before us, we began to feel that perhaps this place was going to be the Real Deal.
Dear reader, this was a great biscuit. But even better was the syrup.
Cane syrup is neither maple nor honey. It’s doesn’t have the innocence or whimsy of either of those substances. We hadn’t tasted cane syrup in years, and we had basically forgotten what it’s really like. Cane syrup tastes like the South: sweet but dark, smooth but with a real bite. It brought back a sense memory of my grandmother’s cooking that was startling. Almost like seeing a ghost.
Now the kitchen had our attention. There might be something powerful going on here.
Next up? Vegetables. We opted for the smoked carrots with tahini sauce and collard greens.
After the first bite of the carrots, we had to pause and catch our breath. Are you kidding??? The depth of the flavor and the punch of spices was just crazy good. We mean this as a compliment: they actually didn’t taste like vegetables. Nestled underneath the carrots was a savory dollop of collard greens. My grandmother never served anything like this dish – which is really too bad, come to think of it.
We were primed for protein at that point, and when we ordered we’d been disappointed to learn that fried chicken is not on the standing everyday menu at JuneBaby.
Actually, that turns out to be a good thing, and it’s probably a wise strategic move on the part of the Chef Jordan. If there was fried chicken available every day, everyone would probably just order that. Because it’s not, you have to explore the menu, and go on a journey. And perhaps have something for the very first time.
The menu is tightly edited, with four entrees plus a special. What would it be? Smokey turkey breast with cabbage, marble potatoes, lardons & rhubarb; fried catfish with “Geechie Boy” grits, spinach, fiddleheads and red sauce; chicken fried steak with Sea Island red peas and potato puree; or “Momma Jordan’s” oxtails with grapes, king trumpets, turnips and black rice.
The Wednesday special is a turkey leg, and we immediately flashed on the image of people wandering around a Disney theme park, munching on these Brobdingnagian specimens. Not really how we like to roll.
But we were in the mood for adventure, and the phrase “deep fried turkey” perked up our ears. We’d never had a fried turkey, but had heard raves about it for years. So we decided to go for it, along with a glass of “assertive” white wine recommended by our server.
We also noted that all of these entrees were crafted around fish and fowl that are not usually found in the precincts of a James Beard-winning restaurant – when was the last time you ordered turkey at a fine dining establishment? Or catfish? We love that.
When our entree arrived, we weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. It’s a bit intimidating to stare down a sizable turkey leg on a bed of wheatberries. But after those biscuits and carrots, we were willing to take the leap.
OMG, what a fantastic choice it turned out to be. The meat was falling off the bone – moist and full of flavor. The skin was crackly and salty, and the cabbage braised in red wine almost tasted like cranberry sauce.
You who love Thanksgiving and can never get enough dark meat? This is your little slice (or big meaty hunk) of heaven.
This is probably a good time to mention that the entrees are sufficiently large to share with at least one companion. Although you might not want to in this case. Your call.
Our check-list of the required items for a true down-home Southern restaurant was shaping up nicely: biscuits – check. Collard greens – check. Sadly, macaroni and cheese is on the lunch menu, and it’s the Thursday dinner special, so we can’t report on that particular menu item.
But what about the sweet tea? This is in many ways the acid test – it’s hard to get it right, and plenty of Southern restaurants just dial this one in.
At JuneBaby, we’re happy to report that the sweet tea is really good. We ordered one in the interest of research, and it was pretty incredible. We tasted layers of flavor that my grandma’s didn’t even have: citrus, orange, maybe some honey. it was sweet but not cloying. And light enough to be totally refreshing. Wow.
As we savored our sweet tea, we noticed for the first time that the restaurant’s tables have the JuneBaby bird logo carved on them, so lightly as to be almost like a whisper. Like so many things about this place, the meaning is there if you look for it – but it’s not going to get in your face.
Since there was no sweet potato pie or peach cobbler on offer, we decided on hummingbird cake for dessert. Our mother-in-law, a formidable cook raised in Memphis, used to make this cake. So we knew what it was supposed to taste like. And this one delivered: the cake was fragrant, moist, and sweet, with velvety buttercream frosting. A good hummingbird cake tastes like banana bread. Only much, much better.
Happily, you can take a small bit of JuneBaby home with you (in addition to your doggy bag). You can buy pints of ice cream in 5 different flavors (Vanilla Bourbon, Grains of Paradise, Mint Chocolate Chip, Loaded Chocolate, and Hummingbird Cake). There are also jars of stock, jams, and pickles.
Here are a few other things to know: JuneBaby is closed on both Monday and Tuesday. It’s open for lunch and “moonshine hour” (3:00-5:00p) on Saturday and Sunday only. (Moonshine is a specialty of the bar, and the cocktails are named after Harlem Renaissance poems). There are dinner specials every evening, and Sunday is the only day you can get fried chicken. Gratuities are included in the tab.
The restaurant’s website has a moving explanation of its mission in serving Southern food: “Southern cuisine has always had and continues to have stereotypical connotations. Seen through the eyes of most Americans as inferior, unsophisticated, and unhealthy, Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.”
Our parents and grandparents were children of the South. Which means that we are, too. And something in this food touched us deeply in our souls – it brought us straight back to family meals filled with laughter, and stories, and beloved people all around the table. It reminded us of how our ancestors made the most of whatever they had, and took discarded scraps and turned them into something delicious, and special, and full of soul.
How odd to fly West and end up in the South. To arrive in Seattle – the capital of modernity and innovation – only to rediscover the rich sweet flavors of the long-ago past in Savannah.
From one June baby to another: very nicely done. We’ll be back.
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