You can tell Justin’s in Santa Clara is a labor of love.
Housed in the old Wilson’s Bakery site, the restaurant took nearly three years to come to fruition as Chef-Owner Justin Perez financed the endeavor, himself, with the help of investors and in-kind trades.
He hand-made the wood dining-room tables, as well as the steel sculptures that decorate the spacious restaurant. Pastry Chef Meg McGraw crafted the framed flower paintings that hang on the dining room walls.
Recently, a friend and I decided to check out the restaurant, paying our own tab, but receiving two cocktails on the house. When it first opened in March, the restaurant sported a surprisingly long menu and also opened for lunch. Since then, the menu has grown a little more concise and the lunch service has been curtailed. Instead, there is a “happy hour” and dinner service, Tuesday through Saturday.
Dinner began with an amuse of tomato consomme. The clear liquid was fruity and acidic, a nice way to wake up the palate.
Next came warm, buttery Parker House rolls, baked in small, individual terracotta flower pots for a fun touch.
A miso-glazed pork belly roll ($11) was a seaweed-enrobed maki roll wrapped around tiny pieces of glazed pork belly. Unfortunately, the rice was gummy, having been cooked with too much water — a mistake that made my Japanese-American friend wince.
Because the restaurant has a pizza oven, a pie was a must-try. We opted for the “Truffle Wild Mushroom” ($11). The crust is cracker thin, particularly on the edges. It’s all crunch rather than chew. Arugula, Gruyere and tomato sauce crowned the pie, along with a good amount of farm-raised mushrooms. The tomato sauce was quite sweet. So much so that the flavor of the mushrooms was lost. When you order a mushroom pizza, what you most long to taste is their lovely earthiness. It’s a shame that was absent in this pizza.
The espresso-rubbed filet mignon ($32) was tender and juicy. Its Cambozola-infused demi glace may have been overkill, though, as its heaviness and sweetness rather overwhelmed the taste of the beef.
Crispy whole branzini ($32) fared better. It arrived on the plate as a whole fish, fried to a crisp,with its flesh flaky and moist. The miso-lemongrass sauce added just enough interest without masking the fish’s delicate flavor.
A side of roasted Brussels sprouts ($5) got a drizzle of truffle oil after getting nicely blistered in a pan.
For dessert, we were tempted by the “S’Mores with Frozen Glass of Milk” ($9). Although we were expecting frozen iced milk, what we got was a very, very cold glass of milk, along with three cute, itty-bitty s’mores. With chocolate and marshmallow oozing out of the sides of the homemade graham cracker sandwich, they are a bit messy to eat. Kids are sure to devour them, though.
At prices that stretch beyond “moderate,” the dishes need to be more polished. If Justin’s can exercise more restraint when it comes to adding sweet elements to savory dishes, this labor of love establishment may yet become a very welcome addition to this Santa Clara neighborhood.