Juneau restaurant scene is getting hip

Clint J. Farr

I am the house cook, but on Friday nights we eat out because, as the old saying goes, “Daddy don’t cook on Fridays.” A few Fridays ago, we were at Saffron and my six year old was thoroughly enjoying her Jhinga Fry (spicy shrimp) and later declared, through a mouthful of nan, “Thif isth the besf resfaurant in the worlf!”

 

Maybe Siena is exaggerating. Maybe.Though I have to say, the Juneau restaurant scene has dramatically improved in the last year. I have not seen Juneauites this excited about food since the Armadillo closed and we lost the nachos plate.

Why now does Juneau seem willing to support some unusual and elevated dining? What is going on with SALT, The Rookery, the Silverbow Wine Bar, V’s Cellar Door, Rockwell and the pickle ice cream at Coppa? I even hear there is going to be an oyster bar in the old Heritage Second Street Café space. People are making interesting food, using interesting recipes and locally sourcing ingredients. Juneau, dare I say, is getting hip.

I wonder if something deeper is going on; something hopeful.

My grandmother Farr cooked every meal (every meal) at home with love. She worked wonders with flour, butter and whatever her little garden grew. Fifty years on, that’s been lost. My parent’s generation, and mine, traded convenience over heart. Our bellies are full, but not our souls. I can’t help but feel the renewed interest in thoughtful, slow, soulful food — even if it is something we have little time to do at home — is a response to this loss.

To dig a little deeper, I visited the head chefs at The Rookery and SALT.

Beau Schooler leads the kitchen at The Rookery. Don’t call him chef. He’s been working in restaurants since he was fourteen. Schooler has studied in Italy twice, with his last trip devoted to learning how to cure meats using traditional Italian techniques. His go-to home meal is good pasta with a can of good tomatoes.

Schooler agrees satisfaction should be more than just a full belly.

“Yeah, I’ve always thought it more important that people leave here saying ‘it was good’ rather than ‘I’m full’. A memorable meal doesn’t necessarily mean you’re full.”

Part of The Rookery’s rationale behind reasonable portion sizes comes from budget considerations. The Rookery uses expensive ingredients and a big plate would be pricey. Further, Schooler is convinced the relative affordability of their high quality food is part of their success. People are willing to experiment if they don’t think they will spend too much on a bad plate of food.

Another part of The Rookery’s success is to change their menu weekly. The kitchen staff wants try new things.

“One reason we change the menu is we get bored,” Schooler said.

So what benefits the kitchen crew, keeping food preparation new and exciting, happens to excite the town as well. And The Rookery is changing palettes. Schooler started cooking pork belly about five years ago. Volume started small but now he blasts through it. This summer, salmon collars took off. Schooler could hardly keep any in stock.

Of course, the success of The Rookery also rests on the work ethic of Schooler, owner Travis Smith, and their stable of long-term and dedicated employees. As Smith puts it, “Running a restaurant is not easy work. We work 70 hours a week. It helps that we’re probably a little crazy, because most people wouldn’t find this a reasonable line of employment.”

(Doesn’t that sound just like the passionate talk of an artist describing why they paint?)

A new guy on the block, just up the hill from The Rookery, is Lionel Uddipa. Uddipa is executive chef at SALT. Uddipa grew up in Juneau eating oxtail soup and watching his family cook. His dad is a chef. His aunt is a chef. His cousin is a chef. He left Juneau a few years ago to train at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta, then went to San Diego and also worked for a time in Chicago.

Uddipa is trying a number of new strategies to get Juneauites excited about SALT. Formerly the Zephyr, SALT is undergoing a number of renovations to help make it a warmer place.

“You don’t have to have a white table cloth to have great food,” Uddipa said.

He is also trying to locally source as much as possible. They hope to start using more local ingredients beyond seafood. Some locals have already been showcasing their vegetables. Uddipa is even trying to develop relationships with foragers and divers for items like mushrooms and sea urchin.

His strategy to attract people, those who may not be all that enamored by “elevated cuisine,” is to serve classic pairings. That is, to serve food everyone knows, but presented in new and interesting ways.

“Something on our menu might say tomatoes, but it could be tomatoes in three different forms,” he said, such as smoked, sauced, and in a chili.

One example is SALT’s eggroll. It’s a classic Filipino eggroll but is made with a duck confit (duck cooked slow and moist so it just falls apart). The goal is to prepare common things with uncommon technique.

I asked Uddipa why Juneau. Why not stay in Chicago and try his hand in that culinary epicenter. His response was pretty straightforward. He’s at a point in life he wants to settle down and not be on the go all the time. Plus, Alaska’s a good place. It’s beautiful, the seafood is amazing and the place is untouched by any set culinary scene. Alaska is a clean slate; a place to make your mark.

Can food be art? Uddipa smiled when asked.

“It is an art because you eat with your eyes,” he said. “It brings people together. Of course, wine has to be involved. It’s definitely an art to me. It’s something that has always…” He thinks for a bit, then continues. “I have memories of me and my mother, and me and grandmother, in the kitchen.”

Uddipa compares food to art in their respective abilities to bring people together. Uddipa, it would seem, works with the love we all remember from our grandmothers’ kitchens.

And perhaps that’s the best we can do in this age where we no longer have the time to cook like grandmother. We go to The Rookery. We go to SALT. Maybe places like this are part of a larger movement to bring back food made with art, love and skill. And that in turn may be the larger movement that brings our relationship with food back to a healthy place — a place where food satisfies the belly and the soul.

And due to “the bestf restaurant in the worlf,” — and all the other local restaurants who have upped their games — we can begin. It’s an exciting time for food in Juneau. Let’s eat!

• Clint J. Farr can be reached at cjfarr@hotmail.com.

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