“The Caesar is made with asparagus tonight, not romaine,” our server points out. “Some people don’t catch that.” I’ve just ordered the grilled Asian Caesar at Juju, and I have indeed missed that key detail, even though it’s plainly written in the menu description. How, I wonder, do you make a Caesar salad with asparagus?
With flawless spears, it turns out, grilled to a snap-tender turn. Lay them across a thick smear of Sriracha-spiked dressing, then top with umami-bomb shards of Chinese bacon, nori-spangled croutons and a cloud of finely grated Parmesan. And if the composition stretches the definition of a Caesar salad to its breaking point, it also embodies many of the elements that have made Juju one of Durham’s hottest new dining destinations.
How, you ask? Let me count the ways.
1. It’s Asian fusion. And it’s tapas – a mashup of two hot trends, neither of which shows signs of letting up.
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2. It’s inventive, with a surprise at every turn. If you think a grilled asparagus Caesar is a curveball, how about wild boar fried rice with a 62-degree egg, caramelized onions and royal trumpet mushrooms? Or Japanese hamachi sashimi, pale ivory petals of fish coaxed into full bloom with a scattering of grated ginger and garlic, a splash of soy and a drizzle of hot oil?
Or steamed buns, swollen to near translucence by a filling of braised pork belly – nuggets at once sweet and savory, chewy and tender? Or crispy Brussels sprouts with dried apricots, crushed peanuts and pickled onions – a surprisingly perfect storm of complementary flavors and textures?
To pair with your food, how does a glass of hibiscus-tinged red wine sangria sound, served on the rocks with a lychee garnish? Or a carafe of Austrian Grüner Veltliner, one of five nitrogen-preserved wines served straight from the barrel? Or maybe a sake flight?
How about a dessert selection that tempts with the likes of brûléed yuzu lemon curd on a graham cracker crust; a macadamia almond tartlet that would be at home in the window of a Parisian patisserie; and a brown butter pot de crème, served in a French preserve jar, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of black lava salt – and wait, what’s this? – a couple of dainty cookies tucked into the lid?
3. It’s fresh. Those asparagus spears in the Caesar were the first of the season, according to our waiter. The night before, the salad had been made with romaine. A new menu is printed daily to reflect Juju’s evolving, market-driven offering. Sometimes, the only change may be a single ingredient in a dish. On other occasions, chef Aaron Zarczynski might be inspired to offer an entirely new creation. In any event, he’s guided by the mission he was assigned by the restaurant’s owners, who developed the concept.
4. It has an impressive pedigree. Juju is owned by young chef-turned-restaurateur Julian Benfey, and by Benfey’s culinary mentor, Charlie Deal. As the chef/proprietor of Dos Perros in downtown Durham and Jujube in Chapel Hill, Deal has earned a stellar reputation for fresh contemporary takes on traditional ethnic cuisines. Zarczynski, a veteran chef who has worked in a variety of restaurants from a house-made sausage shop in Austin to a Hawaiian fusion restaurant in Atlanta, promises to keep Deal’s winning streak alive.
5. Surprises – the negative kind – are rare, and minor. Especially given the ambitious nature of the menu and the fact that Juju has only been open five months. OK, there are occasional misfires. A citrus basil curry, for one, was a mixed bag of impeccable vegetables (broccolini, bok choy and wild mushrooms) over rice in a surprisingly bland sauce. A trio of sorbets delivered exotic flavors (lemongrass-pear, strawberry-banana-basil and apricot-apple) but grainy texture.
6. There’s something for everyone. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are noted on the menu, as are dishes containing shellfish.
7. Wait staff are on the ball. The server who alerted our table to the asparagus-for-romaine substitution is no exception. Service is friendly, attentive and well-informed about Juju’s diverse and ever-evolving food and beverage options. Pacing is good, too, with dishes coming out of the kitchen according to tapas tradition (one or two at a time) unless you specify otherwise.
8. The decor is well-matched to the food. Or, as Charlie Deal puts it, “Asian, but not super super Asian.” The only complaint I can offer about the setting – a large, open dining room with walls of brick and rich wood paneling, chocolate leather banquettes and a poured-concrete island bar – is that it can get noisy when full (as it frequently is). You can always escape to the patio, if you’re lucky enough to score a table, where a firepit and a prime view of the nightlife action on Ninth Street set the stage. Either way, the food is still the star of the show.
737 Ninth St., Durham
Cuisine: Asian fusion tapas
Atmosphere: contemporary, with an Asian accent
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: attentive and knowledgeable
Recommended: Sample freely from the tapas-style menu.
Open: lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: recommended, especially on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot and on street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.