Traces of smoke and butter scent the air at JuneBaby in Seattle. Their lulling perfumes act as calling cards for Southern cooking, though it doesn’t take long into the meal to realize this restaurant doesn’t trade in easy cliches. Dinners might kick off with enduring comforts: Golden biscuits flake apart in soft layers; pimento cheese beckons in the form of a plump, fluffy quenelle. Delve any deeper into the menu, though, and the dishes intensify, their layered pleasures informed by the conflicted history of the region that inspires them.
Smoked carrots, ribbons of collard greens, and benne seeds (their sesame warmth reinforced by tahini) come together in a racy cross-pollination of garden staples. Smoked chile vinaigrette, inspired by Tunisian harissa, glosses charred okra and peanuts; the combined tastes first register as perhaps Sichuan, though the trio is conceived as a junction of West African and North African flavors. Fish and grits rise up out of a ruddy moat cheekily labeled “red sauce.” It’s a distillation of tomato, shrimp, fennel, coriander, and cognac, and it gives the dish’s beach-read easiness sudden nuanced plot twists.
JuneBaby’s chef and owner, Edouardo Jordan, is a son of St. Petersburg, Florida, with roots in Georgia, who settled his family and career in the Pacific Northwest, where his wife grew up. He has carried his native sense of place to Cascadia intact; being thousands of miles from his source material may have actually strengthened and clarified his perspective.
With JuneBaby, his second restaurant, Jordan distinguishes himself as one of the most accomplished and farseeing chefs cooking Southern food in America. The two dozen dishes on his dinner menu, plus a few gems from the weekend-only lunch service, convey a scholarly breadth of the region’s cuisines. He wields a bull’s-eye aim between tradition and modernity — and between homeyness and professional rigor — infused elegantly with the flavors of his African-American heritage.
Jordan took an intentionally circuitous route to his style of cooking at JuneBaby. In college, he earned degrees in sports management and business administration from the University of Florida and then shifted his focus to cooking, graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando. He landed a six-month apprenticeship at the French Laundry after swinging by the Napa icon while he and his soon-to-be wife were on vacation. Following a stint at Manhattan’s Italian-luxe Lincoln Ristorante, Jordan found opportunity in the Seattle area; he mastered charcuterie at the Herbfarm and eventually became chef de cuisine at wood oven-centric Bar Sajor, where he spent several years.
In June 2015 he opened his own place, Salare, in northeastern Seattle’s leafy, burgeoning Ravenna neighborhood. He united his cooking experiences into a seamless modern American menu of pastas, small plates, and entrees like duck surrounded by cherry, quinoa, liver mousse, turnip, and duck jus. The kitchen turns out stunning food, and critics delivered deserving praise locally and nationally; Salare was included among Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America last year.
One could find the occasional Southern glimmer at Salare — spiced collards alongside duck confit, shredded oxtail meat caught in the tangles of homemade fettuccine. The nods were purposely subtle. Jordan has discussed how he didn’t want to be typecast in his career: He wanted to stand out as a great chef, not as a great black chef or a great soul food chef. But he also couldn’t deny the pull he felt to interpret the foods of his upbringing.
When a space became unexpectedly available two short blocks from Salare, Jordan went for it. Salare and its success confirmed his range behind the stove. With his second restaurant, he said to me in a phone conversation, “I wanted to find myself again in Southern food. I needed to represent where Southerners started from, and to educate people about the past, about what African slaves ate when they came here and how it influenced Southern cuisines. In my cooking I’m asking: How do I be respectful of history and still be myself?”
At first glimpse, JuneBaby’s L-shaped dining room conveys the pleasant neutrality of a midscale neighborhood restaurant found anywhere in the country: dark ceiling, knotty wood flooring, central bar, pendant lighting. Look to the art for an unflinching evocation of the South. There’s a painterly rendering of a famous photograph known as “The Scourged Back” taken in 1863 of an escaped slave named Gordon, his back horrendously scarred from welts after a whipping. The largest canvas in the restaurant is a sprawling still of a live oak dripping in Spanish moss, beautiful and spooky. It hangs next to shelves full of “put up” vegetables and canned preserves; bottles that line the well-stocked bar (heavy on indie whiskies) mirror the jars’ iridescent pop.
Start a meal with a bourbon or rye cocktail and biscuits served alongside Poirier’s sublime cane syrup from Louisiana, or the pimento cheese that comes with handsome shards of homemade saltine crackers, or cornbread sugared just enough to notice but not enough to tip it over to abject sweetness.
Then, like a map unfolded across a table, the meal begins tracing Jordan’s personal culinary geography. One salad features “swamp cabbage,” an old Florida nickname for hearts of palm specifically from the sabal palm, paired with a major Sunshine State crop — strawberries, here green and pickled. He dedicates the oxtail entree to his mother, though he veers sharply from her Crockpot recipe: He roasts the tails first and then braises them for three to four hours, until the meat is precisely tender but still clinging to the bone. They bathe in a consomme derived from the braising liquid and clarified in the egg-white raft method straight out of the Escoffier playbook.
Come to dinner for pyrotechnics. Come to weekend lunch for straight-up succor — for a saucy, twangy pulled-pork sandwich; a bowl of shrimp and grits with that same sneaky “red sauce”; mac and cheese (pricey at $11 for a small portion but impressive in its crusty-custardy goodness); and a gorgeous wedge of pound cake whose toasted crust gives way to a chiffon interior.
On both menus, pork takes a place of prominence. It comes in the form of a grilled loin with the texture of a filet mignon. It also shows up as headcheese, rustic and herbaceous and wonderful with mustard and oat crackers, and as fried pig’s ears, pressure-cooked, julienned, fried, and sculpted into a pile over pickled onions and pecan butter. Jordan is candid about including some dishes not often seen on fancier Southern menus — dishes his ancestors perfected using inexpensive cuts with which they had to make do (and in many cases came to love). A side of Sea Island red peas is shot through with chopped pickled pig’s feet, every meaty bite seesawing between creamy and gelatinous. Blushing ham hocks peek out among velvety swaths of collard greens.
Chitterlings comprise the pig’s small intestines, rigorously cleaned and stewed (or sometimes fried); they were a mainstay in Jordan’s childhood. They are also a gastronomic line in the sand; a person knows whether they’re in or they’re out with this dish. When I came for lunch at JuneBaby, I invited Jim Watkins, one of the few high-profile black chefs in Seattle in the 1990s; I worked for him making desserts at his restaurant Plenty. (He no longer owns or cooks in restaurants.) Watkins ordered a bowl of chitterlings. He slurped them up, cursed with delight, posted pics of himself eating the dish on Facebook, and ordered another one. Jordan came out of the kitchen to see who was so enthusiastic.
“These must take a lot of effort,” Watkins said.
“They do,” said Jordan.
“Do you sell a lot of them?” asked Watkins.
“No,” Jordan replied, laughing. “We offer the bowl in small and large, and I know it’s a black customer when someone orders the large.”
Anyone of any color can love or hate chitterlings. But in 15 years of studying and writing about the foods of the South, I’ve never seen them served at another “fine dining” or “ambitious” Southern restaurant, in the region or elsewhere. Eating them at JuneBaby felt like both a revolutionary act and a matter of course.
Southern food is often labeled as comforting and decadent; those descriptors oversimplify a complex cuisine that can enlighten, challenge, and unite. For diners who choose to engage, Jordan’s cooking can also stir conversations around history, race, class, and family.
My brain is still rewiring after my meals here, from both their abject pleasure and their resonant context. All I know right now is that if I have to fly to Seattle to experience the future of the Southern restaurant in America, it’s a journey worth the reward.
JuneBaby: 2122 Northeast 65th Street, Seattle, (206) 257-4470, junebabyseattle.com. Dinner Wednesday-Sunday, starting at 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Lunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.to 3 p.m.
Photography by Bill Addison
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