Julia’s Bistro: Mmmmm…cactus!

On a cool, lazy February evening, Julia’s Bistro underachieves in the kitchen, overachieves in the dining room, and commits a management faux pas.

Alley Cat and I took our time perusing the handsomely designed menus. After all, with only two other tables seated, we weren’t in any hurry.

Food/Drink (4/10)
AC suggested that a complimentary plate of munchies would be nice–some plaintain chips or tasty bread might set the mood (but no chips and salsa please). Alas none arrived so we ordered a bottle of the Tintara 2004 Shiraz, a nice choice from an excellent wine list. The rich/smooth taste did not disappoint.

For the first course we shared an order of the Emapanadas, or “Empanaditas”, always a good measure of a Latin American menu. We chose the mixed plate–one each of pork, chicken and beans. They arrived crisp and golden brown a bed of spinach, with a cilantro/cream/garlic sauce on the side. For me, all empanadas are measured by THE Gold Standard of empanadas–the famed La Cupertina in Buenos Aires. Julia’s empanadas held up very well indeed with the crispy, steamy empanadas perfectly matched with the smooth/spicy sauce. The pastry crust was perfectly cooked, obviously from fresh dough, and the fillings delicious and fresh. The only misstep was the lack of distinct flavor of the individual fillings–the fried crust and cheese tended to muddle the taste of the pork/chicken/beans fillings to the point we were debating which was which. All-in-all a good start though.

For the main course I chose the Patito al Horno, or roasted duck in a mole poblano sauce served with carrots and grilled nopalitos (that’s cactus for all you non-foodies). What words do I use to describe the dish that arrived? Uninspired. Underachieving. Lackadaisical. Let’s break it down. The baby carrots were crisp and fresh–no complaints there. But the duck, well, it just laid there. From the pallid grey/pink color to a texture that ranged from mushy to stringy, the chef on duty obviously was having an off night on this one. Admittedly, slow and lazy weeknights can be a challenge for restaurants to keep the focus on quality, but I thought the effort was poor. This may be a great dish on a busy night when the head chef is working, but tonite it didn’t work. As for the napolitos, after setting the plate down, our server assured me that if I didn’t like the cactus I could swap it out for something else. Ha! Our server did not know that we were foodies, and foodies eat cactus dammit! And it was good. I agreed with the server’s assessment that cactus is a bit like okra in its bitter taste and gooey texture. Fortunately the grilling preparation added a layer of flavor that made the taste unique if not completely pleasurable.

Service (6/10)
Our waiter was unfailingly polite and attentive, if a bit lethargic and inexperienced. Refreshingly, when we asked what was good on the menu, instead of the expected “Everything’s good!” he actually told us what he thought was good and maybe not-so-good. Kudos to you my friend!

At the end of the meal AC noticed a problem with the check. Specifically we were undercharged by 4 bucks on the wine. For a restaurant reviewer this is a dream come true–you can always tell alot about a restaurant based on their response to a problem. And AC, being the saucy vixen that she is, jumped all over it. “What if,” she purred, “we tell them there is a problem with the wine charge, but don’t tell them it was an overcharge or undercharge?” And that is just what she did. Experience would suggest that the waiter, eventually noticing the undercharge, would return with the check and an accommodating smile informing us that “It was undercharged, my bad, don’t worry about it.” But when the check returned it was 4 bucks MORE! D’oh! It’s not that big of a deal but I would expect a more seasoned service team to eat that charge.

Atmosphere (7/10)
Julia’s Bistro offers one of the truly urban experiences in Houston dining. With full-length windows on 2 sides of the perfectly proportioned main space, and the Metro Rail trains humming past on a regular basis, it is a comforting and enjoyable atmosphere. On this Tuesday night the noise level was quiet, although I wonder what it’s like in a full restaurant with a concrete floor and lack of sound absorbing fabrics on the walls. Lighting for the dinner hours is inviting and professionally done. It works even better from the “outside-in”–driving past the restaurant, the big picture windows frame the glow of the soft interior lighting that beckons the hungry foodie to come and bask in the atmosphere.

Value (3/10)
$100 for two people is certainly the going rate for a nice restaurant in Houston, but for this meal, the value was poor. On Julia’s best night the value will surely be good, but on this night were felt that our Benjamin could have been better spent.

The Bottom Line (4/10)
Julia’s didn’t have it tonite. Our solicitous waiter and the fantastic room were not enough to overcome the underachieving preparation of the cuisine. But I got the feeling this was just an off night and Julia’s Bistro has the potential for a more inspired effort. We will definitely dispatch a Houston Foodie reviewer for a follow-up visit sometime in the future.

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