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Simply exceptional sisters 

"Love is simple," says Garance in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis. The film then spends three-plus hours ruminating on the subject. Food, another favorite French topic, could also be called simple. Chef Paul Bocuse, in a college instructional video, prattles on about success being guaranteed when you start with "les bonnes choses fraîches." Indian friends have told me that Indian cooking is easy, just time-consuming. Well, yes and no on all counts.

                On many levels, sisters Lisa Bleier and Michelle Cavalcanti have a simple operation going at their new business, Julienne. It's all takeout and delivery, so there's no need for a wait staff. The menu is short and manageable. And what could be simpler than soups, salads, and sandwiches?

                But watch Bleier and Cavalcanti go about their work, and you see all the "simple" things good cooks do that make so much difference. Is it simple to seed tomatoes, meticulously dry lettuce, weep eggplant, roast red peppers, and emulsify a vinaigrette? Yes, these are relatively easy things to do. But taken as a whole, actions like these constitute the art of good cooking. And make no mistake, what Bleier and Cavalcanti are doing is artful cooking.

                $6.50 scores either an enormous wrap or enough salad for two good-sized meals. Asian chicken salad with gingered slaw knocked my socks off with sweet gingered slaw, the aromatic lift of toasted sesame seeds, and a fresh peanut sauce. Several of the salads/wraps are based on grilled chicken, but almost all employ unique marinades. The southwestern grilled beef or chicken, for example, is marinated overnight in cilantro, lime juice, and secret spices.

                Tunisian-style tuna Niçoise salad comes by its name honestly: Michelle Cavalcanti lived in Tunisia, among several other African countries. Highlights on this one include dynamite seasoned potatoes and green beans, both cooked perfectly (potatoes not overcooked, beans not undercooked); homemade olive relish with capers; and balsamic vinaigrette.

                In the Cavalcanti family, all conversations revolve around food. Michelle and Lisa say that when their dad calls and asks, "What are you doing?" the answer isn't just, "cooking," but rather a full explanation of what and how. Their mother also cooks, as does Lisa's husband --- Jeff Bleier is executive chef at the Marriott --- and both grandmothers have recipes on the menu. Ursula Cavalcanti is the source of Grama's fried eggplant with roasted red peppers and provolone. Like all sandwiches ("Plain Janes"), it's $5.50, very large, and served on an excellent Martusciello's roll. It's all that and a bag of chips, literally. Be sure to ask for olive relish.

                My wife loved both of Julienne's standard soups ($3.25 for a big portion with a roll). The chili has two kinds of beef, plenty of beans, medium spice, and cheese cooked into it. The signature soup, though, is red lentil with spiced oil, which will whisk you away to the Mediterranean. There is also a soup of the day, perhaps Grama Lena's chicken soup with pastina, Italian wedding soup (escarole and homemade meatballs), or various chowders in the winter.

                The menu is short, but expandable. Lisa and Michelle will make you almost anything given a day or so of advance warning. Roasted turkey dinners are popular, and the sisters make a slew of intriguing things, including Indonesian rice salad with peanuts, raisins, and snow peas with orange, garlic, and soy flavor; marinated artichokes with green beans and cheese; and eggplant parmesan (blessèd are those who truly know how to handle the eggplant).

                Vegetarians can have any Julienne salads or wraps with tofu instead of meat, and again, just about anything can be made to order. And Michelle isn't just paying lip service to vegetarianism; she eats meat, but not often, and cooks vegetarian for herself.

                Complaints? Gee, let me think... it might be nice if Julienne had a few more beverages, but it's hard to quibble with the place. Price, convenience, and quality seldom combine so well. Even the little things smack of taste and care: the bags are strong with handles, the containers are sturdy and reusable, and the plastic cutlery is of the best quality. My kids fought over the brownies, and the cookies are great ($1.10).

                I've greatly mourned the demise of Grill 339, which served outstanding lunch fare for people with a palate. Like that place, Julienne combines complementary talents of two siblings. As a sit-down restaurant, Grill 339 had some problems, though (mostly speed). With it's careful, narrow focus on takeout and delivery (free within a 10-mile radius), Julienne should be able to survive until word of mouth makes it a roaring success. We tried it, and we're hooked. You will be too.

Julienne, 429 South Avenue, 232-3290. Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; weekends by appointment.

Food tip

And yet another lunch option, also on South: Open Face Sandwich Eatery recently opened at 651 South Avenue, across the street from Rudy's Oven. It's open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and until 6 p.m. daily for takeout only. Check out its impressive assortment of teas and unusual sodas.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturday mornings for gardening, restaurants, and travel, and Sunday mornings for Toronto restaurants and wine. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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