The Pike & Rose development in North Bethesda (aka Rockville) has generated plenty of dining options but not a lot of buzz.
That could change with the opening of Julii (11915 Grand Park Ave.), the new French-Mediterranean restaurant opened by the three MoCo-boys-made-good who founded Cava. While Julii is clearly still a work in progress, it already has plenty to recommend it.
Julii currently is open only for dinner but in the coming weeks will become an all-day affair, operating as a casual coffeehouse/cafe during breakfast and lunch hours and a more traditional restaurant at night.
Julii occupies a smallish stand-alone glass box on the plaza near L.L. Bean, its convivial glow easy to spot when darkness falls. In warmer months, the restaurant will expand its somewhat limited seating capacity by spilling out onto the plaza.
Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows and clean lines give Julii a modern look that is made less severe by a prominent and inviting bar area and playful lighting. Dramatic rope lights swoop down from the ceiling like celestial jump ropes, the effect magnified by the reflections in the surrounding windows.
Be aware that there’s no entryway, so on cold nights tables near the door can get a small blast of chilly air when the door opens. If you’re sensitive to the cold, ask for a table away from the entrance.
Food and drink
Julii’s executive chef, Sasha Felikson, cooked his way through some of Washington’s top restaurants, including CityZen, Rogue 24 and Minibar, before leading the kitchen at Doi Moi. Felikson is an energetic presence, mugging and chatting easily with kitchen staff and guests. He also turns out some very good food.
The appetizers are a strength. My table ordered the Julii dinner rolls ($8), the French onion soup ($12), the foie torchon ($15), the gem lettuce salad ($12), and threw in the bucatini bolognese ($21) entree as a starter. My dining companion said he’d order them all again and I was about to flag down the waiter when I realized he meant next time.
As for the entrees, Julii’s soon-to-be-signature dish has to be the lamb tagine ($29). Tender lamb is served in an actual tagine along with rice, crispy chickpeas and toasted carrots (the exotic green ones are delicious). Whatever else you order, get one of these.
Crispy trout ($25) is also good choice. Urfa peppers give the fish its brownish color and salty-sweet-smoky-spicy flavor. The accompanying grilled celery, onions and Jerusalem artichokes add texture and flavor without sacrificing the dish’s healthfulness.
There were some misses. The roasted chicken ($26) is undistinguished, its skin short on crackle and spice and its meat short on savor. The pommes frites ($8) are wan and lack crispness. A French restaurant with these ambitions should serve real-deal, double-cooked frites. And the Brussels sprouts were fine but a bit dull and went back to the kitchen half-eaten.
For dessert, we opted for the tableside nitrogen ice cream ($9). A server wheels over a cart and whisks liquid nitrogen into the ice cream base as a fog wafts from the bowl. The end result has sort of a fro-yo consistency. It’s a fun science experiment but not a must-do unless you feel like a little soft-serve after dinner.
The mostly-French wine list contains a limited but well-curated selection. Cocktails and beer are available as well.
Julii’s staff is enthusiastic and remarkably well-trained for the second night of operations (although perhaps that’s not surprising given the ownership). Everything is served timely and without a hitch.
Given the Cava pedigree, the natural question is whether this is a prototype and in a few years we’ll see Juliis peppering the landscape. Cava founder Ted Xenohristos, on site during the second night of operations, demurs. Julii is “not necessarily” a prototype, he says, it’s “a passion project.” Which I didn’t take as a no.
Go or skip?
Go. Julii is worth a visit even if you don’t otherwise have a reason to be in Pike & Rose. The talent in the front and back of the house should ensure that the rough spots are smoothed out over time.