Romeo, Romeo. How hip art thou Romeo? If today’s Romeo is the kind who would dine at the new Williamsburg bistro Juliette, he’s more polished than lovers of years past. The latest patrons reflect the evolving demographics of the neighborhood: once the epicenter of everything young, cheap and arty, Williamsburg — while still plenty cool — has become a high-priced, trend-conscious locale with restaurants and bars to match.
During the area’s heyday, the space was a bar called Red & Black. The words typically used to describe it were “pit” and “cave”; one former patron even shuddered when I mentioned the place. After a complete gutting of Red & Black, partners Alexandra Dozd and Thierry Rochard, also the chef, spent more than a year renovating the space. Once their work was done, Drozd, who ran the short-lived but acclaimed French-Caribbean eatery Le Brunette, and Rochard, proprietor of the West Village institution Tartine, opened the lovely Juliette as a multi-roomed bistro that wouldn’t be out of place on the Upper East Side.
After a short walk down a dimly lit hallway, the glamour of the spacious 60-seat dining room comes as a welcome surprise. The focal point of the setting is a large zinc bar, circa 1930. The floors are paved with diamond-shaped tiles, the walls are glazed to mimic years of heavy smoking and wooden tables are spaced for intimacy. Large, dark wood antiques lend a handsome touch. Dividing the main space from the 40-seat “Winter Garden” (used as a second dining or private party area), are frosted and etched glass windows that filter in a creamy, feminine light. Upstairs is a roof garden that is as romantic an outdoor setting as you’ll find in the borough.
Rochard’s menu features carefully prepared bistro fare sized to satisfy American appetites. A few touches — guacamole that accompanies spicy roasted chicken for instance — offer some novelty.
On the menu the evening my friend and I dined at Juliette (named for Rochard’s daughter) was “rouget” (red mullet). Rochard seared the delicate filet to crisp the skin, and then served the moist fish over a layer of tender eggplant and sweet leeks. With its play of bright and subtle tastes and textures, the starter was deeply satisfying.
On its own, an impeccably fresh mound of salmon tartare was bright with notes of ginger and cilantro and had a spark of heat from finely diced jalapeno pepper, but needed a good hit of salt to focus its flavors. I understood the mild seasoning once the fish was piled on to a “gaufrette” (house made potato chip); the pleasingly brittle, well-salted chip balanced the delicate tartare.
We were feeling happy after the hors d’oeuvres and “Lillet fizzes,” crisp, refreshingly frothy cocktails made with Lillet Blanc, a French, citrus-spicy aperitif white wine, Cointreau and an orange slice. The wine list is, no surprise, heavy on French bottles with a good selection under $40.
Our next course was a thick piece of striped wild bass that, like the rouget, possessed a moist, sea-scented interior and crisp skin. With the fish came delectable slices of braised anise, their clean, licorice taste a delightful complement to the bass.
The “gigot de sept heures” wasn’t as successful as the bass. The roasted leg of lamb was served in a deep bowl that made fishing out the elements awkward. Inside that dish though, were deeply flavored shreds of tender lamb, sweet, buttery turnip pieces and soft little pillows of herbed gnocchi. Too much sauce — even one as rich and well seasoned as this one — made for soupy eating.
For dessert we tried a fragrant “sticky date pudding.” Served like a spicy, fruity, damp cake, the dessert needed just a few spoonfuls of the buttery cognac-toffee sauce to enhance its warm spices, not the deep puddle that it was paired with.
A tarte tatin was just as it should be, the crust buttery and the warm pieces of apples tender yet not mushy. A scoop of vanilla ice cream added to the luxury.
After a meal and a drink on the eatery’s resplendent rooftop, I think the bard would agree: dinner at Juliette can only conclude with a happy ending.
Juliette (135 N. Fifth St., between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street in Williamsburg) accepts cash and American Express only. Entrees: $14-$22. The restaurant is open for diner daily. Brunch is available on weekends from 10:30 am–4 pm. Subway: L to Bedford Avenue. For information, call (718) 388-9222 or visit www.juliettewilliams....