When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Location: 218 East Portland Street
Open: About a week
Eats: Globally inspired cuisine with a French twist
Price: $15 to $50
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
At first glance, the dark gray building with a house number painted on the front and a welcoming patio at the corner of Third and Portland streets resembles any hipster abode, but Josephine. is much more than this presumption. True North Studio Lifestyle's new restaurant concept officially opened its reimagined 1919 bungalow doors on January 3, and we are here for it.
Executive Chef Ryan Pitts, formerly chef de cuisine at Café Monarch and sous chef at Citizen Public House, has brought his credentials and creativity to the new role. Globally inspired cuisine coupled with French cooking techniques produce dishes from king salmon crudo to red kuri squash agnolotti and a New Orleans Cajun spring roll. We pulled up a bar seat and dived right in.
It was 6:30 p.m. and the cocktail list beckoned. The bartender proposed the J.O.F. (Josephine. Old Fashioned) and the Toulouse-Lautrec, an ode to the Post-Impressionist French painter. We couldn't resist the second option. The drink arrived light green with a dainty cantaloupe floating atop. "Melony," we thought. Crafted with Sipsmith London dry gin, Alessio Bianco vermouth, Luxardo Bitters Bianco, Green Chartreuse (the only liqueur in the world with an entirely natural green color), and a splash of Midori, the libation is refreshing, if slightly sweeter than we would have hoped.
Time to grub. First up: crispy Maine lobster a l'Orange with orange gastrique, vegetable ash, and sea beans. It came presented on a cloud-like plate. "Damn," we thought. "Wonder if anyone would notice if this plate disappeared." But we kept our cool and took a bite instead. Reminiscent of rock shrimp with a crispy exterior, delicate center, and just the right amount of sauce, the lobster is a clear winner. Later, chef compared it to a guilty pleasure at Panda Express and we laughed. Panda Express wishes.
A fork in the road: We were caught between the spring roll and the agnolotti, but the server recommended the former. Another pretty plate presented itself, with even prettier food, neatly rolled into five little segments filled with tiger prawns, Chinese sausage, lollo rossa (red leaf lettuce), and Carolina gold rice. It was fresh, it was light, and it definitely didn't belong at Panda Express.
The New Orleans Cajun spring roll is served with an Old Bay peanut remoulade and has a slight kick to it, a nod to its Southern inspiration. Note to self: Come back for this when it's too hot to do anything else.
As it goes, the red kuri squash agnolotti was next, because who actually debates between two menu items and doesn't order both? This may have been our favorite dish of the night: delicate pasta folded over French Brie, topped with roasted baby zucchini, a Parmigiano truffle emulsion, and crispy sunchokes. We pondered second helpings, then pulled ourselves together again — there was clearly more to taste.
The Maine diver scallop was obviously next, as nobody would stop talking about it, and 15 minutes later we knew exactly why. A precisely seared scallop shared the plate with precious nutmeg gnocchi and marinated sun gold tomatoes, topped with walnut pesto. Josephine. knows its way around an ocean.
As we moved through phases of elation, we lamented the fact that our stomachs had stopped rumbling — we were approaching full, and this culinary adventure would soon have to cease. Quick, look away from the bartender before she suggests the green curry New Zealand lamb and we lose our damn minds.
Dessert would be the cherry on top, and beignets always make the cut. We enjoyed the beignets Firi Firi with an espresso while recounting the experience. The French doughnuts had a substantial cake-like center, contrary to the hollow filling we had become accustomed to. As the powdered sugar and cinnamon clove dust worked their magic, we reveled at the pale purple ube anglaise, a frothy cream made from sweet purple Japanese yams.
The interior was curated, the staff friendly, the food impressive. Next time we'll head for Coup de Grace, the speakeasy out back, illuminated with red lights and the inescapable charm of handsome strangers and bad decisions.
We shall meet again, Josephine. Consider this round one.
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