It's All Complementary Tonight
By Nina Coomes
I meet Katrina and Josh for dinner on a summer evening. It’s a weeknight in the South End, the sky streaked with pink and mottled with clouds. The street is uncluttered, dotted only with the occasional dog-walker or relaxed grocery store-goer. I, however, am pacing back and forth in front of our agreed upon restaurant, checking the time on my phone though I’ve arrived a half hour early. It’s the first time I’ve spent any time with Josh or Katrina outside of Juliet, and I’m suddenly nervous. What do restaurateurs eat, anyway? Do they have special, secret food-industry tasting skills that I, a mere civilian, will have no hope of understanding? What if I expose myself for the total amateur and novice that I am?
Eventually, I see Katrina and Josh walking up the block toward me, and I do my best to table my nerves. We exchange greetings, I admire their off-duty outfits (for those interested, Katrina is wearing a sleek jumpsuit and Josh is wearing suspenders), and then we are ushered inside the cavernous steakhouse, bass-heavy music pulsating over speakers. At our table, I announce that I intend to eat and drink whatever they eat or drink, and so Katrina orders a round of martinis to start. (To this, I internally grimace, as my only martini up to this point was one very bad vodka martini at the bar in an Indian restaurant in Chicago’s financial district.) Our waiter lists the house specials, and I begin doing what I always do when nervous, which is to incessantly rattle off facts. This time, I begin to talk about the proper usage of the word Wagyu when describing certain steaks. The discussion of proper labels continues, Josh comparing Wagyu and Kobe beef to the stringent rules surrounding wine.
“The issue of labeling and expectations of a label is something related to wine but also in this context--,” Katrina adds, only to be cut off by the arrival of the martinis. The waiter explains his gin choice (Plymouth), why he chose it (“Lovely, succulently flavored”), and places a small plate of green olives and lemon peels on the table (“My personal preference with it is a lemon twist, it’s very complementary.”) Katrina takes a slip of lemon, rubbing it along the rim of her martini glass, dropping it into the cocktail, a cloudy plume of citrus following its wake. Josh does the same, and I copy both of them carefully. (As an aside, this martini is so refreshing that I let go of my previously held martini aversion and become a staunch martini convert.)
“Josh only began liking olives six years ago,” Katrina notes, the dejected pile of olives glistening sadly on our plate of garnishes. Josh chimes in, “I couldn’t put an olive past my lips without it going badly. Not all olives were created equally. The problem with me and olives was the canned olives of my youth. The squeaky things that are on pizzas, that my sister would put on her fingers.” He grimaces, as if seeing the wiggling black-olive capped digits of his sister in front of his face.
“Works out great for me because I love all olives,” Katrina smiles. I smile along with them and express my surprise--I didn’t expect restauarant people to have foods they didn’t like. I feel myself relax a little as I ask if Katrina has similar food aversions.
A sheepish look crosses Katrina’s face. “Well, I, it’s more like, there’s only really one, that I hate to the point that I will not eat and if someone serves me I will reject, which is yellow papaya.” She clarifies that she does, however, eat green papaya. As if bolstered by the admission, she lists more foods she dislikes: “If left to my own devices, I’d never eat a bean unless I had to. Like the dense dry bean. I like refried beans, a white bean sometimes.” Josh interjects, “she definitely doesn’t mean green beans.” In joking defense, she clarifies, “I appreciate their use from a professional standpoint, but I like wet food so when beans are not a part of a soup or made into a dip of some kind they’re just too dry.” She talks about childhood aversions to crackers, pasta, and bread, which may be explained by a gluten intolerance diagnosed later in life. Slowly, I notice that my nervousness has dissipated, and our talk turns to steakhouses, or more precisely, the winter transformation of Juliet into its own interpretation of the steakhouse.
“We have a new school steak house. Ours is so new school that it only exists five weeks a year!” Josh jokes. “But our new school steak house is trying to recreate an old school steak house that doesn’t exist anymore,” Katrina adds just as the waiter returns to take our first order for appetizers. Josh orders six oysters, three shrimp, and a bowl of mussels, and after the waiter retreats, turns to Katrina and points to an item on the menu. “What do you think makes an iceberg [lettuce salad] equatorial?” Katrina raises an eyebrow, reading the description, “Well, first of all what’s the walnut doing there?” Her eyes crinkle in a smile, “Oh, I guess that’s the other thing I don’t like.” Across the table, Josh offers conspiratorially, “Neither of us like walnuts.”
An easy, teasing rapport settles over the table. Though I’ve spoken to Josh and Katrina individually about the other, when seated together this way, the overwhelming impression is that of a team, of two people whose sense of humor and hospitality line up to offer the lighthearted generosity characteristic of Juliet. Josh and Katrina clearly share a common vocabulary of experience, memory, and joy. When complimentary popovers are delivered to our table, they reminisce about previous steakhouses they’ve visited before (“Where was it, oh yeah! The House of Prime Rib “ “San Francisco!” “Where the meal came with Yorkshire pudding.”
“They come and carve your steaks and they come out to your table.”) After ordering our various steaks and sides in friendly harmony (“The Food & Wine steak, as featured on the cover”, “The hanger steak” “Creamed corn” “He means creamed spinach,” “twice baked potatoes” “and maybe the mushrooms?”), the conversation turns to Katrina’s favorite movie, The Thin Man, a classic American comedy made in 1934, which Josh and Katrina now show on New Years Eve at Juliet. On Halloween, they show The Witches, a 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book by the same name, starring Anjelica Huston. “Maybe this year we’ll make it our first one night only Roald Dahl dinner,” Josh posits. The idea floats across the table, luminous and almost tangible, another possible transformation of their beloved Juliet, buoyed by their imaginations working in tandem.
In the spirit of Juliet’s many forms, I ask the pair something that has been on my mind the whole evening. Why a steakhouse? Steakhouses, while in their modern form are technically accessible to the public, were initially conceived of as male-only establishments meant for consuming large quantities of beef. Juliet, on the other hand, makes no secret of its hope to invite all people to the table. Even aesthetically it seems incongruous--steakhouses bring to mind leather and dark oak, business deals being negotiated in smoky corners, while Juliet is a light-filled jewel box with walls painted a stark white.
To this Josh replies, “Not during steakhouse!,” Katrina explaining “I do some fake wood paneling.” Josh continues “Juliet steakhouse has a couple of tag lines: a dream for me and too, for you. And the marketing behind it is that we don’t do this often, but for these five weeks, come celebrate in a style we’re not used to. Because it’s the holiday time, it’s winter, it’s cold, it’s Boston. It comes close to both of our birthdays.” He pauses, amending, “we don’t want to be overly winter holiday oriented, whether its Christmas or Hanukkah, but we also want to create a blank slate space to celebrate. The steakhouse provides that, a place where people go to revel. Maybe not always for all people, to all people, but bringing something like that to all people is what Juliet is about.” A thoughtful look on her face, Katrina adds that on a culinary level, Juliet’s steakhouse serves classic steakhouse food with Josh’s spin. This sort of food “brings a sort of nostalgia to people, which is certainly what I like about the steakhouse.” On the question of steakhouses and their dubious history she admits, “It was a different time, and I sort of struggle with any time I love any element of formality or refinery. It’s not hard to trace how those things became that way, and how you offer that kind of opulence and service. It wasn’t a profession, those were servants.”
(Our steaks arrive, and for a moment, distracted by the glistening cuts of beef on the table, our conversation turns to meat. At Juliet’s Steakhouse, Josh tells me that “all the steaks are cut from a cut of meat which you didn’t hear about tonight, called the chuck roll.” According to Josh, the chuck roll is mostly used for hamburger, and sausage, and is rarely given the time or attention needed to carve the steaks in the cut of meat. Since butcher shops don’t carry this particular steak, last year, he tells me Katrina did all the butchering. This year, Katrina and Josh are hoping to try to teach their staff to butcher the steaks instead.)
After this interlude, our discussion returns to the question of steakhouses. Josh sets his fork down, saying “For six weeks we’ve taken a thing that in American history has problematic ties, this poor economic situation where only rich people can play. It’s all low paid labor and half the cow that’s never going to be seen and hungry people two blocks away. For a while, women didn’t get to play. People of a certain economic status didn’t get to play. The whole thing was predicated on this wasteful economic situation where not only were certain classes of people excluded at the front door but everyone inside was wasting 90 cents on the dollar on top of it.” He takes a breath. “At Juliet, we would never afford to be able to have a steakhouse. We can barely afford Juliet as we envision it. It’s a very surprising situation where we take what little we have and we’re going to operate it and use it, and we’re going to state our values, but we really don’t have much here. But for six weeks leading up to the new year, we, Juliet, get to have this opulent steak house that everyone is invited to” He stresses the word “everyone,” the heat building in his speech beginning to cool. “And we slow down and we celebrate, we revel in a way we don’t normally, and we don’t think we’d want to or would be economically viable all year long. It’s a dream, we can’t afford this, here we are, here we have it. For a little while, we get to have all of this with you, all of you.”
Katrina joins in, “Something that I really like about the scale and the intentional shift of menus at Juliet is that while parts of me want to standardize things, the great thing is we get this platform to talk about the why behind stuff. We haven’t had that question, or that inquiry from a guest yet---the history of the steak house. But we have the ability to talk about those kinds of issues and say, I as a female could not have owned a steakhouse except if I had inherited it. But here we are, we’re doing something very different.” At Juliet’s Steakhouse, Katrina envisions that “everyone is partaking in the same kind of joy and experience which is harder to find now, as there are just more restaurants, and people go out more often. That’s a positive trend, but I think that to me, the Juliet steakhouse is hearkening back to a time when eating out was a different kind of experience.”
The night mellows and stretches around us. Dinner unwinds from one hour, to two, to three, conversation lolling and meandering. By the end of the meal, the dream of Juliet’s Steakhouse is almost an apparition, infectious and catching. In my mind’s eye, I can see the paper oak paneling put up by Katrina, Josh busy behind the counter, spooning comfort and nostalgia for guests. Though it is August outside, at our table it is December; the particular rosy joy of eating a rich dinner while a winter wind howls outside flaring around us.