Certain restaurants announce themselves as special-occasion destinations, from their lavishly decorated rooms to their purple menu prose to the affected formality of their waitstaffs. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the casual neighborhood joint, the kind that is open at all hours of the day, does as much takeout as sit-down service, has its menu scrawled on a blackboard and gets most of its business from folks who live within a few blocks. In that continuum, it can be tough to pinpoint a place like the new Juliet in Somerville’s Union Square, where chef Joshua Lewin and partner Katrina Jazayeri operate what looks and feels like a family-run cafe serving three meals a day. Yes, locals queue up routinely at the counter to grab a morning cup of coffee and a pastry or a lunch sandwich to go. But beneath Juliet’s sunny, unpretentious facade lies some extraordinary sourcing underpinned by a boatload of refined technique. It would be easy to clock Juliet as a sort of modern, hip-looking diner, but it has rather more to offer than that.
Daily breakfast and weekday lunch are served two ways: from set menus at the six-seat counter overlooking the open kitchen that dominates the room, or a la carte at its 13 seats at tables. The set-menu petite breakfast ($12) includes two perfectly soft-boiled eggs served in cunning porcelain egg cups, toasted milk bread sliced into strips for dipping, fine butter and housemade jam, and excellent tea or drip coffee. The a la carte breakfast menu features a bowl of quinoa ($6) with avocado, diced apples, spiced nuts and greens plus an optional soft-boiled egg ($2), which stirs up into a beautifully light, wholesome breakfast. A plate of scrambled eggs ($11) with fine herbs is topped with a dollop of simple piperade and served atop a thick slab of toast alongside some lightly dressed greens. The price might seem a little steep, but those eggs are a marvel of carefully cooked texture and creaminess: extraordinary. Cold-brew iced coffee ($3.50) is bracingly strong. Lunch a la carte features sandwiches like a smallish but delectable lobster roll ($18) as well as vivid salads, notably a terrific bread and tomato salad ($8) topped with gorgeously creamy ricotta and sprinkled with dry, briny black flakes of roasted Kalamata olives, as well as a kale salad ($7) with charred cabbage, strips of grana padano and an insistently fierce Caesar dressing of anchovies, capers and garlic.
Where Juliet graduates from a fancy-ish, French-leaning cafe to something more formidable is at dinner, served only Thursday to Saturday. Here, seating and menus are reversed: Diners at tables may order only from a three- or five-course prix fixe menu ($45 and $70 on our visits) at four nightly seatings, while the counter is saved for walk-ins and a la carte ordering. The latter menu offers simple dishes like a petite charcuterie plate ($18) with fine housemade ham, chicken liver mousse, country terrine and pickles. Lemon soup ($10) elevates Greek avgolemono into something rich and strange by using fish broth, charred lemons and a mix of basmati rice, puffed wild rice and toasted seeds. Tagliatelle alla bolognese ($16) boasts a lovely, very traditional pork ragù, while lobster risotto ($16 small / $30 large) with bits of roasted asparagus and copious lobster meat benefits from a surpassingly deep-flavored, fennel-scented lobster stock. Dessert options include a superbly balanced rendition of lemon tart ($4.75) with whipped cream.
A recent prix fixe included the fascinating contrast of marinated and roasted mussels arrayed with good bread and intensely flavored jamon serrano, white anchovies and housemade cod conserva; the recurring leitmotif of roasting and pickling in a dish of asparagus, onions, ramps and poached eggs; an extravagant-tasting dish of wild mushrooms braised in brown butter with curry leaf; a showstopping, perfectly roasted whole branzino (which our server expertly, delicately fileted tableside) with roasted Castelvetrano olives, charred lemon and potato mille-feuille; a palate-brushing green salad; and a slice of simple financier dusted with a bit of chocolate. A cheese supplement ($7 per selection) provided a canonical finish with well-chosen small-producer versions of creamy sheep blue, rich clothbound cheddar and nutty, delicately soft wash-rind cow cheese. The only element missing in this fabulous French feast was wine. Juliet hopes to get a license soon; in the meantime, customers must be content with pretty, bright-flavored soft drinks like rooibos soda ($5) and turmeric tonic ($5).
Service at both tables and the counter (where you can interact with the staff preparing your meal) has the enthusiasm and deep intimacy with the menu that signifies a shared passion project, like a family-run restaurant where the family is rather nerdier about how it sources ingredients and has long-honed experience in classical French cookery. That familial feel is underscored by a very modern approach to compensation: staff profit-sharing and pricing that includes tax and gratuity. In the end, Juliet roundly succeeds in its mission to be a versatile, friendly neighborhood restaurant for a neighborhood with refined tastes and the willingness to pay a premium for it. But you will be entirely justified if you don’t happen to live nearby and still make it a destination for a special-occasion dinner some evening.
-Prix fixe dinner with cheese supplement
Juliet 257 Washington St., Somerville (617-718-0958) julietsomerville.com
Hours: Breakfast, Mon.-Fri., 7-11 am, Sat.-Sun, 8 am-3 pm; lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11 am-3 pm; dinner, Thu.-Sat., 6-10 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces