Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
At five months in, Juniper and Ivy still carries the raging buzz of a much-anticipated restaurant making its grand opening.
Situated in the former Helix Wholesale Co. building, the eye-popping space with its exhibition, Las Vegas-style kitchen is headed by Bravo’s Top Chef: All-Stars winner, Richard Blais, who moved here from Atlanta to spearhead the project.
For foodies who followed his culinary wizardry also on Science Channel’s Blais Off or read his book, “Try This at Home,” those are each reasons enough to come. For others who simply gravitate to big, action-packed dining rooms over celebrity hype, Juniper and Ivy duly delivers.
Blais’ penchant for molecular gastronomy has taken a relaxed back seat in lieu of classic dishes with “Left Coast twists.” His sprawling kitchen, fronted by ample bar seating, is endowed with a hefty range, various grills, fryers, a pasta maker, sous-vide equipment and you name it. The meals that arise change frequently, enough to warrant date stamps on the menus.
Visiting with a fellow first timer, we encountered several highs and a few lows. An ear of corn from the small plates section left us hankering for a dozen more. Soaked in lime butter and gently charred on a plancha grill, the corn received a draping of mayo, pork cracklings and what tasted like cotija cheese. Darn messy, but ravishing to the last kernel.
Another small plate, duck confit served in a bowl with succotash and precious corn custard, wasn’t as unctuous as expected. Nor was it gamey. The composition of the dish tasted both homey and complex, although if eating it blindfolded, I would have guessed the meat as pulled pork.
A watermelon salad with heirloom tomatoes played with our palates in a clever, stimulating way. The sweet, summery organics were contrasted by sour white-soy vinaigrette. Pickled rind in the mix added further tang while cotija cheese imparted a hint of creaminess, all registering on our taste buds simultaneously.
A few “toast” creations were on the menu, basically large chunks of grilled bread topped with ingredients that take bruschetta to a higher level. One featured blackened shrimp with avocado and Japanese cucumbers. Another combined bay leaf and ricotta with heirlooms and shiso, an Asian herb used in pickling. Partaking in a chef’s tasting menu, we ended up with the carne cruda asada instead.
The ground sirloin, layered beneath a few soft-cooked quail eggs, was seared briefly to warm the raw meat ever so slightly. But it lacked seasoning. Perhaps I’m too much of a stickler for French versions of tartare, which play up ingredients like capers, mustard and onions to achieve the boldness I sorely missed here.
Our least favorite dish was smoked rigatoni strewn with pork and chopped prawns. In my opinion, these proteins co-exist at best rather than set off wedding bells. Secondly, the pasta tubes didn’t deliver the soft, lightweight quality of house-made pasta. And their smokiness, however achieved, tasted awkward. Next time around it’ll be linguini with clams and uni butter, which a few friends have rated as stellar.
We were given license to choose a main entrée, which we shared with gusto. The plate featured a half, locally farmed chicken from the rotisserie that tasted exactly like poultry smells as it tenderly roasts. The infusion of herb butter under the skin was apparent, and the accompaniments were well-conceived: green harissa sauce for oomph plus “sea water potatoes” and Oregon chanterelle mushrooms adding to the overall comfort of the dish.
Juniper and Ivy’s multi-tiered dining room is architecturally stunning, evenly lit, lively and noisy, but not to the point where you can’t converse. However, every wait staffer on the night we visited could have raised their voices a few more decibels through the din. We oftentimes couldn’t hear the food specs when they were explained to us from a few feet above our heads.
The menu also extends to seafood from a raw bar such as oysters with horseradish “pearls” and corvine with pink lemonade – next time, for sure.
Our meal ended with a chocolaty bang in a swooped-up Yodel made with devil’s food cake that was injected with a blast of liquid nitrogen to freeze the chopped berries inside. With hot chocolate drizzled on top and hazelnut brittle strewn throughout the roll, the dessert expertly meshed warm and cold temperatures, soft and crunchy textures and sweet and bitter flavors.
Complimenting Blais’ innovative cooking are standout cocktails constructed from a raised bar that looks down on the dining action. They contain things like vanilla-clove foam in the gin-based Milly Vanilly and aloe liqueur in the minty tequila drink called Soltera. The wine list is equally ambitious, featuring numerous varietals from California and Europe, with a sturdy emphasis on France.
Between seasonal bounties driving the menu and Blais’ aim on transcending the copycat mold of San Diego cooking, Juniper and Ivy has quickly become a destination for diners open to the unexpected. Yes, they do exist here and the nightly crowds certainly prove it.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC, Pacific San Diego Magazine, San Diego Downtown News, San Diego Uptown News, Gay San Diego, and Living in Style Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.