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Foodie culture in the capital

Posted: July 18, 2013 - 12:04am

Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of a story that originally appeared in two parts in the Capital City Weekly.

Running a restaurant is a tough business. Profit margins are tight, staffing can be a challenge. A consistent customer base is hard to develop in a town that sees big seasonal fluctuation in both visitors and residents. It’s no surprise that eateries come and go here in Juneau. Lately, the town seems to be on a culinary upswing. New places are opening and finding success, and established restaurants are expanding hours and offerings.

Here’s a look at some of the options.

DOWNTOWN JUNEAU

Rockwell: When I first moved to Juneau in August of 2011, I wished silently for a fun and funky breakfast joint. You see them in bigger cities, sometimes so popular that lines for tables run out the door on Sunday mornings. In 2012, Rockwell opened in the old Elk’s Lodge on Franklin Street. The building has had many incarnations over the past decades, and was even the site of Alaska’s first territorial legislature. Rockwell, a bar and restaurant owned by Deb Barry and Erik Emert, has daily breakfast, lunch and dinner service.

On the weekends, breakfast goes until noon, then “blunch,” a hybrid menu with a little bit of their lunch and dinner menu and a bit of their breakfast menu lets people decide how they want to start their day. The breakfast menu has the usual eggs and potatoes and a few signature items like the vegetable hash — with beets, rutabagas, carrots, kale and eggs as well as a few southwestern options like a breakfast burrito and Migas — eggs with tortillas, beans and salsa.

Samovars: On Marine Way, just across from Marine Park, is Samovars, in the space that used to hold Paradise Cafe. New Russian decor and new lighting and fixtures give Samovars a bright, clean, welcoming feel. The menu features both sweet and savory Russian cuisine. You can try handmade pelmini dumplings filled with beef, pork, and lamb, or chicken or cabbage rolls — golubtzi — filled with beef and rice and simmered in a tomato sauce. I had the pirozhki, a delicate pastry filled with cabbage and potatoes.

Wild Oven: If you’re not looking to sit down for a leisurely meal, you can grab a bite from the Wild Oven bakery. Baker Daniel Martin offers fresh loaves of organic artisan bread made with his own wild Alaskan sourdough. The bread varieties change daily (my favorite is Wednesday’s Italian Chocolate Bread made with dried cherries). The bakery offers two sandwiches — avocado and dubliner cheese with mayo, red onion, lettuce and tomato, or Genoa salami and swiss with pickled onions, mustard lettuce and tomato. You can also try their focaccia squares. A bit like pizza, these adorned flat bread squares are fresh daily and include options like arugula and parmesan, or basil and roasted mushrooms. Wild Oven offers a few carefully selected beverages and things you might want with your bread like organic pasture-raised butter and packets of natural peanut butter. Even if you’re just popping in for a cookie you can grab a sample of the day’s loaf dipped in flavorful olive oil.

The Rookery: There was quite a bit of buzz last year when folks heard that The Rookery started their dinner service. The cafe is known for its coffee, pastries, and bustling atmosphere. Word traveled quickly among local food lovers about the new rotating dinner menu featuring local ingredients in unusual preparations. The Rookery transforms during the dinner hour, moving tables, adding candles and creating a bistro atmosphere with water served in upcycled liquor bottles. The menu is divided into small and large plates, so you can eat appetizers and an entree, or assemble a tapas-style meal of various tastes. The menu draws inspiration from all over the globe, from Asia to the American south. A recent list of the small plates included halibut steam buns with a Napa cabbage slaw and garlic aioli, as well as a baked macaroni and cheese with Beecher’s cheddar and “Cheez-it crumbs.” Local ingredients, especially seafood, are at the forefront of the menu. Spruce tip salt adorns one appetizer and local pea shoots become part of a spring vegetarian couscous.

Two of downtown Juneau’s new restaurants, Rockwell and Samovars, are open late. Rockwell offers their dinner menu late at night and also has a happy-hour menu that includes inexpensive bites of their firecracker mac and cheese, french fries, beet and blue cheese salad, and cheese and jalapeno croquettes. Their nachos also make a great late-night snack.

MENDENHALL VALLEY

Paradise Cafe: When Joan Deering moved Paradise Cafe to the Valley, it felt like a huge loss for those of us who frequented her spot on Marine Way for a cookie and a friendly hello. But we didn’t have long to feel sad. A short drive to the Valley and we’re back in Paradise. The new location on Glacier Highway is alive with hungry people, proving the Valley was ready for Joan’s brand of fresh baked goods, quiches, wraps and handmade pizzas. The spacious restaurant bustles with patrons coming and going or sitting and relaxing. Joan has always wanted her restaurant to be a gathering place, and the new space gives her more room for that. (And more room for things like her bicycle powered smoothie-blender.) On Tuesday evenings, bluegrass musicians gather to eat and jam. Joan features artists and artisans, and she offers bread from Wild Oven.

Suwanna Cafe: I admit it: sometimes I dream up excuses to head to the Valley around lunch time just so I can eat at the Suwanna Cafe. Located in the atrium of the Jordan Creek Mall, the cafe has limited seating and caters to a take-out lunchtime crowd. They have a small menu of what chef and part owner Sitthida calls “Thai-style” cuisine. Pad-Thai, Panang and Yellow Curry, Satay, and summer rolls made with your choice of chicken, shrimp, or tofu. Everything has the fresh flavor of Thai ingredients-basil, lemongrass, cilantro, and peppers. The restaurant offers weekly specials like Thai roasted duck or papaya salad with grilled chicken. The portions are generous, and the prices are fair. The Suwanna Cafe is open weekdays for lunch and on Thursday and Friday they stay open until 6:30 p.m.

Clay Oven: Clay Oven is in the Frontier Suites Hotel on Glacier Highway. Since it caters to both hotel guests and local diners, they have a dual menu: one page of Indian offerings and one page of traditional American fare. The restaurant space is light and open, with a bar and a small dining area. The decor matches the hotel more than the style of the food, with exposed pine beams and wooden accents. When I arrived with a friend on Friday night, the restaurant was busy but not full, and the pleasant smell of Indian spices filled the room. Clay Oven has been open for only a few weeks, and they will soon be expanding their menu. Currently, they are offering Tandori Chicken, a mixed grill, and a selection of curries and vegetable and fish dishes. I ordered the Shakahari Shojan, the vegetarian platter. It came with black-eyed peas and garbanzo beans, curried vegetables, palak paneer, and basmati rice. The garbanzos and black-eyed peas each had a mild spicy flavor, and the curried vegetables were stir-fried and still fresh and crunchy with an interesting combination of spices. We ordered both garlic and plain naan and a side of raita, a yogurt sauce. I am eager to see how the menu expands and how the chef settles into his new surroundings.

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