I have a theory: If a restaurant serves a quality steak tartare, odds are its burger will be life-changing in some way. To test this theory, I’m at one of Newport Beach’s hidden gems, Juliette Kitchen + Bar, admiring the cozy wine-barrel-staved bar with my angsty 11-year-old daughter, hoping there is something that catches her eye.
“I’ll have the steak tar-tear,” she says, her eyes rolling so hard I’m pretty sure the Earth was knocked off its axis by a few degrees. After a brief explanation of what tartare is, she rolled them back in the other direction, thankfully correcting our planet’s trajectory around the sun.
In a county where every restaurant is littered with buzzwords such as grass-fed, organic, free-range, handcrafted and craft, Juliette Kitchen + Bar lets the dishes speak for themselves. The cocktails are still crafted with care, the wines hand-selected during personal journeys through boutique vineyards, and quality food put on a pedestal.
“I heard there’s a secret menu cocktail,” I whisper to longtime bartender Jon McConnell.
“We have a vanilla maple old fashioned for our regulars and guests in the know,” he whispers back, in an effort to not entice interest from surrounding tables.
The drink is prepped and delivered like your typical old fashioned with a chunky square cube and a lemon peel whose essential oils have been tweaked and smeared around the rim before dramatically resting on ice. On the nose, notes of vanilla and Luxardo cherry pop out, despite there not being cherry in the glass. Sipping the drink, there’s a soothing, clove-like numbing of the senses. I couldn’t quite place the booze, so I asked.
“The spirits in the old fashioned are unique to the process; we’ve been doing an infinity-bottle method for around 18 months in which we keep five bottles of brown liquor on rotation,” notes McConnell. “Once it gets down to two bottles remaining, we top it up with bourbon, rye, cognac, etc., so it’s always evolving.”
Meanwhile, my kid is devouring the $20 steak tartare as though it’s free chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. I follow suit, taking a barbecue-flavored potato chip from my burger board and grabbing a hefty scoop after mixing up the yolk on top. The meaty puck of unflamed meat is an unctuous bite with kalamata olives and salty capers; it’s served with a sturdy, ruler-sized cracker.
Chef Daniel Hyatt forges a stunning meat parcel with the Juliette burger ($16-$17), its stratified layers of sweet tomato jam, perfectly melted aged Cheddar and smoky bacon playing like a power trio on a beef stage. It is otherworldly and easily one of my top five favorite burgers in OC.
Juliette Kitchen + Bar, 1000 Bristol St. N., Ste. 11, Newport Beach, (949) 258-9950; www.juliettenb.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest.