a meal by any other name

photo: Bill Poland

by erin thursby
Downtown delis are the food of choice for most of the office workers in the area, but if you’re searching for something with a bit more swank, popping inside a Downtown hotel might be the way to go. The Omni Hotel, just across from the Times-Union Center of the Performing Arts, houses Juliette’s Restaurant and Bistro.
If you haven’t been there in a few years, now might be the time to check it out, as they have changed the staff and management considerably. Executive Chef Greg Wright, who creates their fresh and seasonal menu, joined the team last year. He has an excellent Jacksonville resume. He’s worked under Liz Grenamyer of Liz’s Catering and was a chef at the old Sterlings back in the 90s.
The menu at Juliette’s is best described as Southern bistro food with a French/urban twist. At lunch menu items range from $6 to $18, with most at about $10. It is all about classic but fresh flavors.
Juliette’s is designed in the round, a design choice they could make, because it’s set in the lobby of the hotel. It strikes a chord between sleek and cozy, feeling open or private, depending on where you sit.
Though it doesn’t share any of the same ingredients, I found their creamy and divine curry crab corn bisque reminiscent of a spicier version of the dal soup you can order at many Indian restaurants. The heat was more Thai than Indian, with a base of coconut milk.
They do bake bread daily, so you’ll have plenty fresh crispy bread to nosh on before the rest of your food comes. It goes well with the bisque. Definitely worth dipping!
The salad selection looked scrumptious. I was torn between the chop chop salad (because of the toasted mustard vinaigrette), the walnut Gorgonzola (often a favorite of mine), the new South salad and the caprese. I finally choose the pretty caprese, a salad of layered tomato, fresh mozzarella, baby spinach greens, basil and a sweet-tart balsamic glaze. All salads can be served regular size ($10) or as a side salad ($6).
Although I went with the caprese, which will be staying on the menu, that seasonal new South salad had my adventurous palate intrigued. It’s set on a bed of mizuna, a type of Japanese mustard green, along with watermelon radish, sweet pickles and cherry pepper, topped with a lemon vinaigrette.
You can add chicken, salmon, shrimp, scallops or hanger steak to your salad for an extra $6. I recommend the blackened salmon. They cook it just right, still a bit glossy in the center.
The classic fried green tomatoes are made more interesting by their companions, a creme fraiche (the French version of sour cream) blended with blue cheese and a peach compote. As a matter of personal taste, I would have rather had firmer peach pieces (perhaps with a sweet simple syrup), but such is the nature of compote. The flavors were well-balanced and overall I enjoyed this take on fried green tomatoes.
Then came dessert, a little round mound of Italian heaven. The smooth silkiness of their panna cotta was further uplifted by fresh fruit. Panna cotta is a cooked cream dessert rather like a custard, but with firmness more akin to flan.
Juliette’s is an outstanding place to lunch, and with the same chef designing the dinner menu, it’d be a great spot for dinner, especially right before a show at the Performing Arts Center or the Florida Theatre.