Given that his new restaurant is named after his grandmother and mother, one might assume that chef Scott Eastman developed his passion for cooking while spending hours in their kitchens, helping them marinate the chicken or stirring the cookie batter.
One would be wrong.
“That’s not my storyline,” Eastman said with a laugh, explaining that while he was a pretty adventurous eater as a child and had always loved food, his passion for cooking took off while he was attending college on the East Coast, as he began experiencing New York’s restaurant scene.
Rather, his grandmother Juanita and his mother Maude both have traits that he hopes are reflected in his new venture, Juanita & Maude on San Pablo Avenue in Albany.
The food will no doubt seem familiar to fans of Berkeley’s Corso, as Eastman was its chef de cuisine for the past six years, with three years as a line cook there before that.
So how does a chef like Eastman, who has been associated with one restaurant for so long, put his own stamp on a new place?
It’s clearly something he’s thought a lot about.
Given that Eastman spent some time working at a Japanese restaurant before he moved west, he has been incorporating more Japanese influences in his menu at Juanita & Maude. He recently featured a starter of hamachi crudo, with Meyer lemon ponzu and shichimi togarashi. There has also been a curry on the menu.
While minor seasonal menu tweaks will happen every few days, its offerings will continue to change as the restaurant grows and learns what its clientele wants.
“We’re still becoming what we’ll be, and improving our craft,” said Eastman.
Eastman’s partner in this endeavor is his wife Ariane Owens. The pair met when she was a server and he was a line cook at Corso, right after it opened in 2009.
As for the name, Eastman’s maternal grandmother Juanita was cosmopolitan, with a curiosity about the world.
“She had a certain courageousness with people and cultures,” he said, explaining that despite her Spanish name, she was actually the product of an Irish father and an African-American mother.
Meanwhile, his mother Maude “was just a very generous person, both with her time and her spirit,” he said. Although she had five children, she was somehow always willing to make time for people, indulging them in whatever they needed.
In naming his restaurant after these two matriarchs, Eastman hopes the new restaurant is bringing forth those qualities and making them proud.
In addition, he said, he hopes his food becomes known for being traditionally made and entirely from scratch, but at the same time, he’ll be pushing boundaries when he feels comfortable doing so.
“Not that different cuisines need ennobling, but we’ll do foods from different cultures and do them right,” he said.
For those who came to eat when the space was still Nizza La Bella, Eastman said they redid about half of the place, keeping much of it, like the zinc bar, intact. (Owens designed the space).
When summer comes, they intend to begin serving on the back patio, which they’re very excited about.
While Juanita & Maude opened nearly four months ago, local press about it has been nearly nonexistent until recently. But its neighbors tell a different story. Its Yelp reviews are nearly all five stars. On the Thursday night we visited last month, which was in its tenth week of service, I heard general manager Nicholas Danielson greet one party with “Welcome back.” And they are far from being the only repeat customers. Danielson told me about one woman who had eaten there 11 times in the 10 weeks the restaurant was open, and who had booked the restaurant for a private party on a Sunday when it’s usually closed.
After eating there ourselves, I can say that none of this is surprising in the least.
“Flawless” is not a word I’m used to hearing the husband say after a meal, as he can usually find at least one thing that needs improvement, whether it be the service or at least one dish. But I heard it here, maybe even for the very first time.
When the couple at the next table heard that pronouncement, they jokingly asked me not to write how good our meal was, so they could keep what’s quickly become a neighborhood favorite to themselves.
Juanita & Maude is that kind of place, clichéd, but true, a neighborhood spot, small enough so that if you go there enough, everyone will certainly know your name and your preferences.
Danielson is a local who attended Albany High School, and all of the staff have not only worked in the industry for years, but many of them have worked together for years. They all feel a sense of ownership of the place, and it shows.
“Not to discriminate against young, unexperienced people, but I wanted this to be a very mature, professional restaurant, so everyone who inhabits this space has decades of experience,” said Eastman. “It’s pretty special to work with a crew in that way; I definitely feel I have my dream team here.”
Many of the staff worked at Corso together — Eastman was chef de cuisine there for the past six years – and while he worked with Danielson there, they actually even met well before that, through working together at Eccolo in Berkeley.
In addition to his managerial skills, Danielson is a certified wine specialist from the North American Sommelier Association and has chosen a list – with a beautifully embossed paper cover – divided between European and American varietals. Our server recommended a bottle of Cabirol 2013 from Montsant, Spain that would carry us through, from our pasta course to the chicken and steak. He said it would and it did.
At Corso, Eastman quickly developed a reputation for excellent house-made pastas and Northern Italian dishes with a California cuisine sensibility, so it’s no surprise that house-made pasta is also among the options at Juanita & Maude. We tried the malloreddus, which are described as hand-rolled saffron pasta with a beef sugo, rosemary, chili and pecorino ($18), and while my one gripe with the meal was that we didn’t taste the saffron, the dish was so delicious anyhow that we almost didn’t notice.
My husband loved how our server didn’t ask how we wanted our steak ($32) cooked; clearly the chef knew how the hangar steak should be cooked, and we diners shouldn’t assume that we know better. It arrived rare — served with pomme frites, warm spinach salad and oyster mushrooms — and while I admit I sometimes find steak not that interesting, with the deliciousness of this one and its accompaniments, that wasn’t the case here at all.
The chicken paprikash ($26), with brown butter spätzle, turnips and crème fraiche had beautifully burnished skin. The chocolate tart ($10), with a smattering of sea salt, was dense with just the right amount of sweetness.
My cocktail, the Starter Pistol ($12), had no fancy ingredients (Pisco, black pepper, lemon and rosemary) but was creative without being fussy.
Eastman said that he intends to change the menu about every three weeks, so regulars will always find something new to try.
Urging me to come back in a few months, Eastman said, “I’m at the point where I’ve been doing this long enough so that I can just relax, and that’s when the real creativity starts to happen.”