I was fortunate enough to have time on Saturday to visit Juniper and Ivy, the new San Diego restaurant from Top Chef (and onetime podcast guest) Richard Blais. I can report that Chef Blais’ hair is even crazier in person. Also, the food was spectacular – different from what I had at the Spence in Atlanta, but with a similarly experimental bent, very much what you’d expect at a place with Blais’ name on it.
(Full disclosure – Richard was kind enough to send out a number of dishes for me to sample, so portions of my meal were complimentary. As always, this doesn’t affect what I’m telling you about the meal or its quality, but I’d prefer you know this information up front.)
The menu is extensive, longer (I think) than the Spence’s, divided into a number of distinct sections: Snacks, Raw items, Pastas, Toasts, Small plates (including salads and vegetable dishes), Entrees, and Desserts. I didn’t really need to capitalize all of those, now that I think about it. The restaurant opens at 4 pm for cocktails and snacks, with the full menu available at 5 pm.
The first item on the Snacks menu is a buttermilk biscuit served with smoked butter. I have never turned down a biscuit, but I think I’m something of a biscuit snob – I like them tender, not flaky; I think buttermilk is overrated; and I demand a browned crust. J&I’s biscuit hit all three points. The texture was more like that of a warm cake than a traditional biscuit, with no layers like you’d expect from biscuits that came out of a can. The buttermilk flavor was subtle – it reminded me of a tangy Southern buttermilk biscuit, without smacking me in the face with that soured milk flavor. And the top was crispy, with the salty smoked butter drizzled over the top. The presentation is slick as well, coming out under glass, served in a miniature cast-iron pot. Blais’ Chicken and Biscuits should be coming to a strip mall near you, damn it.
From the raw menu, I ordered the one item both Chef Blais and my server, Alexis, recommended – Dungeness crab with meyer lemon curd and dill pollen, served on a nasturtium leaf that you roll up to eat the crab mixture, almost like you’re stuffing a grape leaf. The peppery leaf was a good offset for the two sweet elements inside of it (crab meat tastes sweet to me, at least); Blais loves lemon curd, which is the star ingredient in the recipe I cook most often from his Try This At Home, lemon curd chicken, and here I would have been happy with a little more curd to crank up the acidity even further.
Chef Blais sent out the hamachi (yellowtail) crudo, served with a tiny panzanella on top that included sliced olives, giant raisins (I’m not sure what kind but they tasted more like dried cherries than grapes), and samphire – glasswort, a wonderfully crunchy, salty vegetable that isn’t used often enough in my opinion – with a jamón vinaigrette. I enjoyed the panzanella, but at the end of the day, a crudo dish lives and dies by the quality of the fish, and this was top-end, beyond fresh, sliced sashimi-style, and if they’d sent the fish out as one plate and the panzanella as another I’d still rave about both because the fish was that good. (The main food item or category I missed while living in Arizona was quality fish; in fact, the only restaurant where I’d order raw fish preparations in the Valley was, appropriately enough, crudo.)
The Toasts menu had three items, two of which included things I prefer not to eat – raw beef and beef heart – so I went with the vegetarian option, charred black grapes with ricotta, hyssop, and ice wine vinegar. (Hyssop is a strongly flavored herb used in a lot of cough medicines as well as in the liquor Chartreuse.) The grapes were skinned but served whole, all on a giant slab of grilled sourdough bread that was coated with a thin layer of ricotta, a flavor combination (grapes and ricotta, which isn’t even really cheese) I wouldn’t have thought of myself – grapes and cheese, yes, but I think of ricotta as a pretty generic food because I grew up only knowing the kind that came in the plastic tub from the supermarket. (So did Blais, who grew up a few towns over from me.) The creaminess of the ricotta helped balance the sweetness and slight acidity of the grapes plus the brighter acidity of the vinegar, and I’m a pretty big fan of grilled bread in all its permutations. I didn’t really notice the hyssop, or anything that reminded me of Chartreuse.
Chef Blais also suggested the green gazpacho, which is poured tableside – a bowl arrives with “early” green grape tomatoes, green almonds (a new item for me), lime caviar, and what I think was coarsely diced honeydew, after which the rich green soup, which is more like a dressing, is poured over the top, tableside. This was a vegetable-lover’s treat, with all of the huge flavors coming from the produce itself, especially the tomatoes. This is the kind of dish I would have hated twenty years ago because it was all vegetables, and ten years ago because it has tart and savory notes, but now I could easily see this as the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal. It is potent, almost aggressive in its vibrancy, like a spring harvest in a bowl.
It wouldn’t be a meal at a Richard Blais restaurant without at least one weird plate. “Abologna” is pretty much what it sounds like: mortadella, a forcemeat that originated in Bologna, that includes abalone in place of some of the pork fat. J&I’s abologna also includes pistachios and is served in slices with drops of passion fruit-Dijon mustard. Once I got over my initial reaction – the abologna looks like olive loaf, a form of bologna popular in New York that I have always found repulsive – I was shocked by the texture of the abologna, softer than the American bologna, more like an airier paté than a typical forcemeat. The fish added a sea-air flavor but there was nothing fishy about the taste; I think the conflict between the pork and sea flavors is the dish’s defining characteristic. It lacked a contrasting textural element, however; anything this soft needs something hard or crunchy to offset it, even just some grilled bread, and the pistachios weren’t able to fill that need.
That brings me to the best item of the night, the prawn-and-pork rigatoni, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a classic New York Italian red sauce with meat, but this time also uses bits of prawns, which add more texture than anything else. The result is a small plate (a primo portion) of pasta that feels more satisfying because the three main components, the pasta, the pork, and the shrimp, all have some tooth to them. You could split one of those biscuits in half and cover it with this sauce and probably get a line halfway to Escondido. You could also put a few New York Italian grandmothers to shame with this sauce. I’ll even forgive Blais calling it “gravy.” It’s sauce. Salsa pomodoro. Save your gravy for Thanksgiving.
Dessert was one of the treats sent from the kitchen, but it was actually the dessert option I would have chosen of the four on the menu: coconut panna cotta with passion fruit, crushed almond macaron, and jasmine rice sorbet. The sorbet was the most interesting and peculiar sorbets I’ve ever tasted; sorbet is usually kind of a letdown, all ice and no mouthfeel, but this one had the essence of the rice so that one taste brought to mind all the flavors and experiences of sitting in a Thai restaurant, then reinforced by the coconut flavor in the perfect panna cotta. It was also the most visually stunning dish of the night.
Juniper & Ivy also has an exclusive cocktail menu, including a gin drink similar to the Sailor’s Crutch that I liked so much at the Spence. I went for the rum drink this time, however, called Twice on the Vine – rum, grape-tarragon gastrique, lime, and fino (sherry) finish. Aside from the garish magenta color, it was solid, with about the right sweet/sour/strong balance for a rum drink, although the rum itself was a little lost under all of the finishing flavors. (The classic ratio for rum cocktails, especially the one best known as planter’s punch, is encoded in rhyme: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Flip the sweet and sour and you lose the rhyme but get a less cloying result.)
The prices are very reasonable for this kind of cuisine, especially given the superlative quality of the inputs, comparable to the price point of the nearby Searsucker (another great place to eat in downtown San Diego) but providing better presentation and more creativity to the dishes. It’s a little further off the beaten path, however, so it won’t likely get the walk-in traffic that Searsucker could get if it weren’t already so well-regarded. If you’re in San Diego, Juniper & Ivy is well worth the ride over to Little Italy whether it’s for a meal or just drinks and a biscuit.