Next time there’s a severe thunderstorm warning, book a table at Juniper. There we were, tucked into a booth in a mostly all-window room, safe from the booms and the bolts and the odd flying branch, comforted – as only raw meat can – with a mound of steak tartare.
This was a luscious knoll of finely chopped beef, held together with capers, shallots, pepper, drizzled with ramp oil, and served shabby-chic style with sweet potato chips.
Regrettably, the human contact that night wasn’t as comforting as the food. The welcome was muted. The service a bit too pleased with itself, had an off-putting arrogant egde. The dinner music was more Market than Westboro.
Yet another night, there was less drama all round. Our server was royal. We felt comforted, warm and welcome. The room was busy, buzzy. A pianist was playing sultry lounge music.
If felt like a different restaurant.
The one constant was the food. At all three of my visits, it was outstanding – flavourful, well executed, playful.
The house salad was a triumph of textures and flavours – greens with guts, plucked from four local farms, the menu tells us, with goat cheese wrapped in hazelnuts, pink rings of pickled red onion, and Concord grapes, both whole and fashioned into a ripe vinaigrette. Scallops came two ways – sliced and marinated, ceviche style, with ripe melon for company, and a second beauty smoked, then seared off, paired with a spicy cucumber relish.
A duo of monkfish was a winner for two reasons. One, because half the dish involved batter and a deep fryer, and the results were crunchy-good; the other introduced a gorgeous ratatouille bed for the piece of monkfish that had been poached in a low temperature olive oil bath. Same fish, two wildly different treatments.
Why do just one thing with an ingredient, when you can do two? Or three? Here are oysters, one beer battered, a second left raw with pickled pecans, a third spiced with jalapeno in a lime sorbet. And here scallops, in one corner, smoked and browned, in another marinated in citrus, milky white.
Now occupied by three principals – Chefs Richard Nigro, Norm Aitken, and new-to-me Peter Robblee – this is a kitchen that excels at the yin-yang thing. Hot and cold, heavy and light, cooked and raw, each dish carefully calibrated for balance in mouth and on plate.
Duck is offered as a roasted breast, peach glazed and perfect. A confit has been made with the leg of the duck, pulled and wrapped with shredded vegeatables in a phyllo bundle. Lamb is soft and fragrant of lemon and rosemary. Slices of the leg are balanced on a bed of crispy spaetzle, scattered with toasted hazelnuts and sided with a puddle of blueberry sauce. Beef tenderloin is blood-juicy and rare, served in thick hunks with a mushroom-corn-basil salsa on garlic mashed potatoes. Fall vegetables – patty pan squash, roast cauliflower, heirloom carrots, green beans – are nestled alongside.
A chocolate trio, of course. Baked into an Alaska, with piped meringue and chocolate shavings, a serving of chocolate bark, white and dark, studded with fruit. Also, a beet carrot cake served with candied beets, and a Lobo apple crisp.
Lunch to go is a delicious bargain. Sandwiches – smoked chicken breast with a spicy corn relish, or a Moroccan spiced beef – on perfect little buns with a side of well-dressed, bouncy greens. For dessert, a fat finger of chocolate ganache on coconut shortbread with a hazelnut crisp. This for $10. (Call ahead.)
Juniper’s wine list begins with a full page of sparkling options (four available by the glass.) Fourteen pages later, it closes with “Juniper’s Great Value Options” (wines they’ve marked down.) It is among the city’s most accomplished lists.
This is a restaurant that can soar, that can feel vital and exciting. The food is solidly good. But the atmosphere can sometimes be puzzling. I know how it will taste, but I’m not as certain how it’s going to make me feel.