On everyone’s mental mercury thermometer, there is a small notch somewhere north of the 80-degree mark indicating the precise temperature at which the idea of a lavish meal becomes less appealing. And it’s the rare Charleston summer when that line isn’t crossed, no matter where it’s positioned. At some point, the reliable pleasures of complex cheeses, crisp-roasted chicken skins and silky foie gras sound more like chores than indulgences.
So three cheers for Juliet, the stylish pizza-and-pasta restaurant that this year quietly cropped up in the former Butcher & Bee location off King Street, for smuggling luxury on to the hot weather table. Bagna cauda is typically associated with colder months, but consultant Tommaso Damasco has solved that problem by turning down the temperature of the Piedmontese dip so it has more in common with salad dressing than a bubbly fondue.
Indeed, Moore’s bagna cauda is something of a graduate-level Caesar dressing, with the savory punch of anchovy keeping pace with the sweetness of cooked garlic. It’s a fine reminder that opulence isn’t reserved for months with “r’ in them.
Nor is the occasional intellectual challenge, apparently. The trick of Juliet’s crudité platter is figuring out how to dispatch all of the pretty vegetal things surrounding the bagna cauda bowl. There’s no question that the starter is a striking still-life of darling carrot baubles, wisps of celery, near-translucent zucchini slices and cauliflower florettes (typo intended.) But these accoutrements are not cut out for the work of dip conveyance, and the assorted flower petals and frond-like things cohabitating aren’t helping.
Ultimately, the chop doesn’t matter all that much, because Juliet makes splendid bread, with a big wide crumb and crackly crust. Heck, if you’re not too bashful, you could probably go after the smooth, lyrical dip with your fingers or a spoon.
But the kitchen’s failure to think through the dish’s engineering hints at the young restaurant’s one foible: While servers are unswervingly nice, it’s not entirely clear if Juliet in the end will demonstrate loyalty to its customers or fatal fealty to its infatuation with a consultant’s vision.
Part of the reason for the haziness on that score is Juliet barely had any customers on the three nights I visited. Frequently, my companions and I were the only people in the dining room who hadn’t clocked in upon arrival.
That was by Juliet’s doing, presumably because owners Liz and Sinan Aktar of Collective Coffee Co. wanted an extended opportunity to install a chef and find their footing after an early May opening. So there is no sign on King Street to indicate that Juliet is situated more than 50 yards back from the road, nor did the restaurant have any online presence during the time I was reviewing it. Juliet first announced its existence to the media at the very end of June, long after I’d wrapped up my visits.
Of course, there is nothing that says a restaurant has to court customers. If Juliet can balance its books without them, that’s none of my business. But there’s no telling how Juliet will function when forced to deal with more than one or two tables at a time. And that’s a pretty significant unknown with at least two accomplished local restaurateurs putting their names on similar-sounding Italianesque establishments: Patrick Owens (Opal, Langdon’s) just last month opened Wood & Grain in Mount Pleasant, and Brooks Reitz (Leon’s Oyster Shop, Little Jack’s Tavern) is now plotting Melfi’s for the North Central neighborhood.
Yet in the meantime, loveliness abounds. I thoroughly enjoyed my dinners at Juliet, which were distinguished by vivid flavors and sophisticated plating. Most crucially, though, the starring pizza is adroitly made, and the wines served by the glass are so well matched to the pies that diners are bound to feel like they’re breaking up some kind of yeasty communion.
Still, it’s best not to dive directly into pizza, since there’s so much goodness on the menu that never sees the inside of an oven. Among those items is the ethereal cobia crudo, a breathtaking study in texture and tart. The moist, mild fish is presented as a tight spiral of coin-shaped cuts, creating a stark canvas for grapefruit wedges and slivered radish fans (as well as those same flowers and fronds that made no sense in the crudité context.) That’s about as refreshing as fish gets.
Those are the kind of gentle extremes at which Juliet excels, further evidenced by an octopus salad that deliciously dramatizes the essence of green. Octopus and potatoes are often seen together; so often, in fact, that fans of the combination can immediately conjure an image of browned and curled tentacles with their suckles on, set amidst cubes of boiled white potatoes. By contrast, Juliet tosses tender bits of identically sized octopus and potato in a zingy gremolata brimming with parsley and lemon.
Other salads don’t suffer from hewing more closely to tradition, such as a pair of fried eggs topped with trisected roast asparagus and a slew of parmesan, which tastes earthy even when grated cobweb-fine. I also was terrifically impressed with the juicy sliced steak aboard a simple green salad, at least partly because beef barely figures into Juliet’s menu.
As its name suggests, the restaurant has a feminine feel, despite not having much of what could be called décor. Light streaming through the plate glass that fronts the restaurant (affording a view of the parking lot) is perhaps the defining design element, along with plain wooden tables, spindly Windsor-type chairs and a few shelves supporting potted plants. Add in a concrete floor, and the overall look is either sophisticated or unfinished, depending on your aesthetics.
The minimalism that reigns in the dining room doesn’t rule every dish. There are a number of satisfying detours into heartiness, including rotund meatballs that are as bready and cheesy as a Midwestern meatloaf, and cioppino in an herbed tomato broth. If anything, the pastas are burdened with too much stuff: It’s hard to get a good read on noodles when cream or Parmesan cheese or chunky tomato sauce is making a distracting racket.
Which brings us back to Juliet’s pizza, available in eight different guises. Margherita is the purist’s test, but the blistered crusts here are sturdy enough to support an array of toppings. It’s hard not to be charmed by the salty, winey coupling of cheese and clams, or the fatty funk of a gorgonzola pie criss-crossed with speck.
But it’s not quite the right weather for that sort of excess. Instead, try the pie layered with bright red cherry tomatoes and fresh arugula leaves, finished with delicate clouds of burrata: The pizza strikes the perfect balance between seasonality and swank. Considering Juliet's strangely silent start, the only question remaining is what becomes of these delights next.