- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
An advertising and marketing guru once told me (over and over) that the first question you should ask yourself before opening a business is, “Do you have a product the customer wants?” The second question was, “Are you ready for the customer?” The third: “Are you absolutely sure you’re ready for the customer?”
Austinites love high design, and there are few restaurants in town as visually arresting as Juliet on Barton Springs Road. We also apparently love Italian food, because new Italian-inspired restaurants are so numerous they could create their own restaurant row. So, Juliet owners could seemingly answer the first question of that marketing maxim with a resounding “yes.”
But during a sluggish and bumbling dinner at Juliet recently I wondered whether ownership and management had given enough consideration to the last two questions.
Seated in the front room, which is highlighted by a handsome mid-century wood and marble bar, the buzz of milling workers and cocktail-sipping patrons filled the space. The energy had a frenetic feel that more closely resembled chaos than the thrum of a well-oiled machine. It took about 20 minutes to receive our drinks — a bright Aperol spritz ($7) was a refreshing complement to the people-watching. And, then, more waiting.
After a limp and pale selection of fried seafood ($11) piqued by an expressive arrabiata sauce, and a sad dish of unripe peaches with a smear of gorgonzola dolce more sour than sweet ($10), we waited for about 45 minutes before our next plate came. And when it arrived, it was a repeat of a dish we had already received. An unfamiliar face had delivered us the repeat plate, and our server had gone missing for extended periods, making for an odd take on team service.
When the right dish materialized, it didn’t make things much better. We could only finish a couple of bites of the chilled acorn squash soup ($6) that tasted like unseasoned puree. Despite some incorrect dishes and obvious disasters with others that went almost untouched, nobody thought to apologize or ask if anything was wrong.
It seemed hardly anyone had the time.
Juliet is a massive space: One mirror-lined room with Eames style wooden chairs and seafoam booths has the feel of an updated mid-century Roman trattoria. Another oddly placed seating area in the middle of the restaurant features leather couches and chairs for lounging. An airy side dining room looks out on Barton Springs Road. Caramel mini booths line the wall in yet another room. And the sprawling patio and outdoor bar plucked from the Italian Riviera can probably seat another 100. With so much ground to cover, it’s not surprising that errors can go unnoticed on a busy night.
The pace and commotion also led to our main courses — including a dry grilled quail that wanted for a better incorporation of its fig mostarda ($25) — coming out before our pasta courses. Another slip not acknowledged.
The homemade fettuccine ($24) should have been rescued from the boiling water a second earlier, but the supple and ample littleneck clams in a vibrant white wine sauce, zipped with Calabrese chili, made for a nice, light dish on an evening weighted by anxiety.
We moved to the interior dining room for a second visit, a change of venue that made for a cozier and less harried dining experience. I love the intimate feel of the room, but the horseshoe booths face stand-alone tables, which gives the feeling you’re being watched while you eat.
The service experience shifted to a more measured, mindful and friendly vibe, as it did at a recent lunch, though there was still fine-tuning to be done: To-go bags were set on the table mid-meal, and our server held other diners’ used wine glasses in her hand while discussing the menu.
While highlights were easier to identify at the second dinner, such as tender grilled octopus with fried cuts of crunchy potatoes in a Calabrese-shallot agrodolce ($12) and a ruby-centered and well-seasoned beef tenderloin with pancetta-wrapped green beans and enlivening salsa verde ($34), the Italian calling cards fell flat.
An Italian restaurant like Juliet is only as good as its pasta and pizza, and neither could be considered strengths. The spaghetti carbonara ($15) needs an overhaul. The sauce had the consistency of canned chicken noodle soup and tasted like hot pasta water, and I caught none of black pepper’s buzz. They take a welcomed and nontraditional approach to lasagna ($21) with flavorful spinach pasta baked into curled and crunchy sheets, but the dish was missing the cheesy creaminess I want in lasagna, and the meat, while tasty, was pressed together like it came from a mold.
Pizza at Juliet has the golden edge, flat face and cardboard center you’d expect from frozen pizza baked at home. Spackled layers of fontina and mozzarella trapped smooth brisket-pork meatballs on a heavy pizza special at one meal ($15), while on the lighter end, a simple cheese pizza with basil and red sauce offered little cheese and only a smattering of tomato’s acidic zip.
The unevenness continued through desserts, where even a delightful honey and pine nut tart was undermined by an acrid balsamic caramel ($7).
The service hiccups at Juliet frustrated, if not shocked, me. As Austin’s restaurant scene continues its ongoing explosion, hiring experienced and precise front-of-house staff poses a challenge for restaurant owners, especially when trying to staff a restaurant the size of Juliet.
I was more disappointed by a kitchen from which I expected good things. Executive chef Jacob Weaver proved himself adept at Italian while helping guide the ship at longtime Hyde Park favorite Asti, and chef de cuisine Brandon Fuller reinvigorated Café Josie, directing that restaurant to a spot in my Top 25 last year. Between the two, I would think the hybridization of Italian cuisine and Central Texas bistro fare would be sound in both concept and execution. Maybe the sheer size of the operation has overwhelmed the kitchen from a production standpoint, but I would expect more thoughtfulness than a lunchtime fall salad that had the texture and appearance of steamed frozen vegetables.
The hunger for new restaurants in Austin doesn’t appear to be waning, but if these spots want to compete for diners’ dollars, they need to ask themselves the questions posed at the top of this review. I thought Juliet had soundly answered the first question, but a pretty package doesn’t always make for a substantial present.