Dreamy? You bet. Unexpected, too, given that the owners of the D.C.-based Cava Group are best known for a brand of 75 fast-casual Mediterranean outposts. “There are enough chains; we’re good,” jokes Ted Xenohristos , one of the principals.
Julii, he says, represents “a step up in terms of culinary” and an opportunity to work with a dedicated chef, Kiev native Sasha Felikson, whose work has taken him from the late CityZen to Table to Minibar by José Andrés to Yona to Doi Moi, his most recent employer. It doesn’t hurt that the site of the upscale French-Mediterranean restaurant, which occupies a small park in North Bethesda, represents the crown jewel of the Pike & Rose development, whose bosses originally saw the empty shell as a possible Cava.
Julii takes inspiration from Forum Julii, “the market of Julius” Caesar, a major trading post that stretched from Rome to Arles during the Roman empire. The background story gives Felikson lots of room to play, sometimes literally (more on that later). A salad billed as “Waldorf,” for instance, relies on the expected grapes, celery and walnuts but is otherwise not tethered to tradition: Feta cheese weighs in with tang, and the dressing is a mustard vinaigrette. If it’s a true classic you’re after, a cap of molten cheese on a cushion of baguette over a thicket of caramelized onions swimming in beef and chicken broth makes a restorative French onion soup. An upgrade, incorporating a sherry pairing, costs an extra $5 or $7. You decide whether to spike yourself or the soup.
No first course shines brighter than the salmon crudo, Scottish farm-raised fish that are lightly torched to bring out the fat, then marinated in sherry vinegar and brown sugar. Slices of the vivid orange fish are decked out with pink watermelon radishes and sharp onions and set on contrasting sauces of fruity Aleppo pepper and tart lemon and olive oil.
The dish that Xenohristos says sold him on Felikson, 31, is a riff on stuffed cabbage, a roulade of caramelized leaves filled with whatever vegetables, mushrooms and grains the chef has on hand — sweet potatoes and Carolina rice one night — set on a potato puree and finished with fried shallots and mustard seeds. The entree is hearty without any assistance from meat.
The dish I could eat every visit is pasta Bolognese: ubiquitous, yes, but as good as any for miles. Benton’s bacon adds richness to the drape of ground beef and sweet carrots on al dente rigatoni. Roasted chicken with fleshy sauteed mushrooms reveals a generous kitchen, although carving is a challenge given Julii’s oh-so-slender knives and forks.
Did someone say burger? a line on the menu teases. Restaurants of all stripes have begun offering the crowd-pleaser, and Julii is no exception. Its burger is a tall sandwich combining a shiny bun, ruffles of lettuce and thick Angus patty, crusty from the grill. Merely spotting the structure on a neighboring table incites envy. Finer still are the fluffy-centered fries, bronzed with Espelette pepper, that glide to the table in a copper corral. Speaking of beef, glistening slices of New York strip steak centered on their plate create a controversial border with a creamy peppercorn sauce. At issue isn’t the combination, which is enormously satisfying, but the staging: Half the plate is bare, a fashion trend you can expect to see more of this year. (“Do I pay only half?” cracked the comedian at the table.) I say, fill the space with one of the very good side dishes, either charred Brussels sprouts striped with garlic aioli or potatoes whipped into submission with knobs of butter.
What’s not to love about a tagine, its conical lid removed to reveal a fetching display of shredded lamb, fried chickpeas, pomegranate seeds and flower petals? As pretty as the dish looks, the lamb tastes divorced from the rest of the dish, as if cooked in isolation and foisted on the rice and the flowers at the last moment.
There are several such disappointments on the menu, but none that couldn’t be easily turned around with more attention. Julii’s risotto, for instance, needs to be cooked longer. Otherwise, its flavor, buoyed by truffles that taste of a forest, is rewarding. And the base for the Alsatian tart approaches the texture of cardboard; bacon, onions and Gruyere deserve a better canvas. Salads have a tendency to be overdressed. See: the sodden parsley-lovage mix alongside upright roasted beef bones hiding an appetizer of creamy marrow.
Warm chocolate souffle — rich with Valrhona and split by a server to allow for a pour of creme anglaise — will have you swooning. But you’d miss a good laugh by forgoing Julii’s whimsical ice cream service. It starts just outside the kitchen, where the chef emerges, pushing a cart with a big copper bowl and ... singing, sometimes the ice cream truck tune of his Montgomery County youth. Once he arrives at the table, he does a little magic trick, stirring liquid nitrogen into a bowl of creme anglaise (sometimes along with fruit), a motion that results in ripples of fog and eventually, scoops of frozen ice cream all around. Honestly, it’s not the best ice cream you’ve ever experienced — the texture is chewy — but with the help of some sprinkles, tiny marshmallows and warm caramel sauce, presented in a squeeze bottle that you handle yourself, the confection is undeniable fun, much like the shot of hot spiced apple cider that greeted my party at a recent dinner.
Open only since December, the scenic restaurant was poised to expand its offerings last month to include lunch and pastries . The newcomer has some edges to smooth out, but already, Julii is a joy to behold and a pleasure to meet.
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Open: Dinner daily. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $15, main courses $19 to $38.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.