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Wednesday, March 22, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TASTE OF THE TOWN

Cafe Juanita gets new owner, to stay Italian

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Peter Dow is finally willing to substantiate rumors regarding his 20-year-old Kirkland restaurant, Cafe Juanita. It's true. He's selling the place: To Holly Smith, a chef with strong ties to Seattle's upscale dining scene. "I love this restaurant," says Smith, who takes possession of Cafe Juanita next week and intends to close for a decorative makeover before re-opening in late April. "I really can't wait to go in," says Smith.

The 33-year-old Maryland native gets the big nod from her bigwig former employer Tom Douglas. Smith spent five years as second-in-command at Douglas's Dahlia Lounge, and later opened Brasa, working as Tamara Murphy's sous-chef before leaving last month to negotiate the deal. "She's been keeping her eye out for a place of her own for years," says Douglas, who helped make Smith's dream a reality by fostering this restaurant love-match, turning Smith on to his good friend Dow, who was in the market for the right buyer.

The new chef/owner will keep the Cafe Juanita name, as well as its focus on Italian fare, though she clearly intends to make that focus her own. "My passion is for Northern Italian food, but I'd also like to explore the border areas," says Smith, who cites a particular interest in the Moorish influence on Sicilian cuisine. Dow, owner/winemaker of Cavatappi Winery, will continue making his wines on the premises. "It's every cook's dream to be next door to the winemaker," says Smith.

She hopes to retain Dow's crew of veteran servers, who collectively let out an "audible gasp" when told there will now be "a real printed menu," Smith says. Cafe Juanita was infamous for its lengthy tableside menu recitations.

Longtime customers mourning that old menu warhorse, pollo pistacchi need not worry; Smith will make it for anyone who wants it. "Hey! If somebody wants me to make scrambled eggs for dinner, I'll make them scrambled eggs for dinner," she says.

The chef could barely contain her enthusiasm as she described her forthcoming menu, including asparagus with fonduta, housemade mozzarella, smoky marinated octopus salad and, in a nod to Sicily, country-style ribs braised with bacon, capers, sugar, vinegar and tomato ("It's practically barbecue!"). As spring turns to summer, Smith will take advantage of an extensive kitchen garden. "That's what I'm most excited about," she says.

Andrew Stout, owner of Full Circle Farm, is already sprouting her lettuces, herbs and greens and he's coming over with his backhoe and rototiller to help build the garden, says Smith.

"I hope people will enjoy the restaurant as much if not more than before.

"Peter (Dow) told me, `Holly, You're going to take this to the next level.' " And that, says Smith, is exactly what she intends to do. Cafe Juanita is located alongside Juanita Creek at 9702 N.E. 120th Place, Kirkland.

Attention oyster fans: Get your tickets now for the annual Oyster Olympics, scheduled for Tuesday, from 3:30 to 9 p.m. This spectacular slurpfest will be held again this year at Anthony's HomePort at Shilshole (6135 Seaview Ave. N.W., Seattle) and it's your chance to raise an elbow and slurp with a crowd while raising money for the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

The Soundkeepers are dedicated to keeping the waters of Puget Sound clean and your $65 donation buys you the right to dedicate an evening to eating oysters as fast as the folks here can shuck 'em. And can they ever shuck 'em! (In excess of 15,000 oysters were consumed at last year's event.) More species of oysters are grown commercially in Puget Sound than anywhere else in the world, and local growers - as well as area wine and beer purveyors - will be here strutting their stuff for your consumption.

But that's not all! Festivities include 25 restaurant teams competing in highbrow contests including speed-shucking and oyster identification. But it's the lowbrow entertainment that gets the crowd really jiving. You haven't lived till you've seen the Olympics' oyster "fashion" contest (think Halloween on the half-shell), or the famous "Celebrity Oyster Slurp" (watch media personalities making fools of themselves, slurping oysters with no hands). Call the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance at 206-286-1309 for tickets.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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