If you sometimes shudder at the two-word combination “Asian-fusion” like I do, Durham’s Juju Tapas and Bar will do its best to dispel some of those fears.
Located at the corner Ninth Street and West Markham Avenue in downtown Durham, the trendy space bedecked with modern pendant lights, Chesterfield-inspired booths and bamboo stream-lined furnishings inside Juju is a fitting environment for a Tinder date, or a bite to eat with friends before hitting the bar scene afterwards. The youthful energy on an autumn evening inside is palpable, and is no surprise given the restaurant’s proximity to Duke University. The exuberance carries outside to the covered patio where a smattering of tables and a fire pit await guests that prefer to dine al fresco.
If you fancy at a drink at Juju, you’ll be delighted to find an extensive sake, cocktail and wine list. The whimsical names on the cocktail menu demonstrate that the staff at Juju doesn’t take themselves too seriously, but that doesn’t mean that the drinks aren’t stellar– because they are.
At Juju, you’re encouraged to abandon austere commitment when it comes to ordering off the menu of small plates and bites to eat. You and your dinner guest would be wise to choose from a variety of dishes at Juju—after all, it is a tapas-themed restaurant. But, moreover, as my dinner guest and I found, not all of the dishes fires on all cylinders.
The pork belly buns, at $10 for two, may elicit at a little gasp at its price tag for the mere pair, but you would be wise to throw some of that caution to the wind and to go for it. The braised pork belly stuffed inside, moist and plenty unctuous, cocooned tightly inside its slightly chewy gossamer and glutinous skin proved to be a gratifying choice. Accoutrements of shaved carrots and daikon and pickled cucumbers help to cleanse the palate for the next dish.
Sadly, a stack of Juju’s Vietnamese Lemongrass glazed pork ribs, though beautifully plated on a slate serving board, fell short of its potential. The glossy ribs, a tad on the sinewy side, didn’t exude much flavor from the meat and the lemongrass glaze slathered on the outside and plied with a thick coating of sesame seeds erred more on the side of an afterthought than intention.
The chicken fried oysters, submerged in a bowl of an overpowering Thai yellow curry, was a puzzling dish as well. Adorned with mushrooms and sliced strawberries, the dish seemed to make a case as one with an identity crisis. Was it a sweet or savory dish? Were the fried oysters supposed to be sopping wet with curry as we ate them? I thought this dish exemplified the occasional perils of Asian fusion when the amalgamation of flavors flounders.
Still, the oyster dish was redeemed by the succession of the wild boar fried rice, which was met with resounding satisfaction. The wok-fried rice, tossed with kimchee puree and royal trumpet mushrooms, exhibited a nice salty, nuttiness to finish the meal.
At nearly $100 for two people splitting four small plates and two libations, Juju may be steep for some, but for a night in downtown Durham and the pleasant ambiance, you’ll likely find yourself rewarded with the good fortune of having a delightful time.
Juju Tapas and Bar | 737 9TH Street #210 Durham NC 27705 | 919.286.3555