(between) Juniper & Ivy (on Kettner)

Easy enough to miss if you don't pay attention as you walk in

Easy enough to miss if you don’t pay attention as you walk in

Who is Richard Blais?  Thanks to Eater I know the guy is a Chef.  Thanks to this book I’m reading called Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, I have a very different view of the profession and what he calls “chasing flavors” than I used to.  And thanks to my wife, a couple named Madeleine and Adam, Kyle our server, and rockstar Jenn Queen’s skills, our first night at Juniper & Ivy was about way more than the food.  Here’s how it went down…

Rather self-explanatory

Rather self-explanatory

The only thing related to food that I love more than a great meal is a great meal coupled with a great experience.  When we go out to eat I like noticing the little things.  Are the front of house staff pleasant? Does the exposed wood look manufactured? How does the place feel?  All of this happens before I’ve tasted anything.  We booked our first trip to Juniper and Ivy three weeks ago.  In the interim we’ve had a great steak at a Michael Mina restaurant, a very well executed tasting at Jose Andres’ somewhat hidden e and two comfortable and delicious experiences at eat.  But this was different because it was home.  And because the anticipation had time to build.

 

I wish North Park had the density to support a restaurant like this.  Mostly so I wouldn’t have to drive.  J&I has valet parking for $5 and while I don’t love having to drive to dinner, if I have to do it, having perfectly welcoming valets ready to whisk my car off for less than the price of an appetizer works for me.  It also makes the notion of griping about the all-night $5 parking at the North Park garage seem a bit silly, actually. I digress.  We opened the door and the first thing I noticed was the crowd is a little different than we tend to see in mid-city.  To get in, we had to take a 6:30 reservation, which is pretty early, so there were quite a few “60-is-the-new-40s” out for a date night or good dinner with friends.  I like that good health and exercise have made it possible for people to enjoy more of their lives.  It bodes well for me (if I can get back on my bike-to-work program next week).  The crowd was an interesting mixture of hipster, blended with Celebrate-the-Craft types, older guys with those expensive loafers that would be understated except anyone who likes a good shoe knows how expensive they are, and a wide range of the young, beautiful people.  Honestly, as I walked past the bar to our seat I thought maybe they had recruited male and female models to post up, laugh and drink.  Good on them.  We were seated promptly along one of those rows of two-tops where one side is a bench and the other is individual chairs.  We were dropped right between aging 70-something girlfriends and a lovely, about-our-age, north-of-8 couple that really made our evening even more fun than our typical adventures.  I don’t offer the ‘north-of-8’ label as a pejorative, though I know some people who do.  People like and want different things.  The quiet of a single-family home and walks where all you hear is the birds or the neighbor kids has its allure.  I remember precinct-walking up in Scripps Ranch a couple years ago on a Saturday morning and being stunned at how quiet it was.  Well, as Wife and I frequently do, we started ogling Madeleine & Adam’s sardine, a conversation ensued, and we even got to share a few items along the way.

*enter Kyle*

Kyle was our connection to the work in the kitchen.  I can’t explain how much Yes Chef is shifting my view of the restaurant experience, except to say that I couldn’t stop thinking about the orchestra being conducted to get us our food.  And Kyle was a very good front man for the restaurant’s menu.  Our first two questions: can you do a chef’s tasting on a Friday night and can you hold a burger?  Yes, I was asking about both items before even getting a drink order in.  The burger would be no problem, he said, but the chef’s tasting, something called a 4×4, wasn’t ready to be unveiled just yet.  Kyle had a knack both for describing the ingredients and for giving us some of his own interpretations.  It doesn’t matter to me that the thing I liked best wasn’t one he recommended (I’ll come back to that), I am just glad he had an opinion.

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I don’t usually take photos of our cocktails, but this one was special.   First, it’s not on the menu.  But that’s a small point.  About six months ago our friends at Carnitas’ Snack Shack held a special Sirens’ Dinner – five female chefs and a female mixologist came together for a delicious tasting menu to raise money for a good cause (this one).  Well, we went, loved virtually everything about it, and remembered how cool Jenn Queen was at the bar – plus how great her drinks were.  So my wife asked Kyle if they could recreate one of them.  A few minutes later – on a busy Friday night mind you – Jenn pops over, asks for a refresher about which drink we’d had, and quickly adjourns to create a new version.  Very impressive.  This, and Kyle’s service throughout the night are about half the reason we’ll be back.

Now, about the food.  We started with this

This is a biscuit, not cornbread, and it is very good

This is a biscuit, not cornbread, and it is very good

This was a pretty straightforward biscuit, until it wasn’t.  The hard thing to explain here isn’t the smoked butter, though that added a surprising character to a relatively traditional item.  The harder thing to help you understand is the actual flavor in the biscuit.  I mean, we’ve all had biscuits, right?  They can be light or dense, perhaps baked too long or just right, et cetera, et cetera.  But I can’t say that other than butter or maybe a bit of salt that for me most biscuits taste like much more than warm, flaky bread.  This was different.  When I pulled a hunk out of the mini-cast iron dish and lingered on it a moment, I noticed flavors in the actual biscuit dough.  I’ll need to go back for another go to positively identify the flavors, but that I’ve written this much about a typically ordinary food item ought to tell you something.  Give this one a try.

Somebody else's much better photo of the charred black grape toast than mine

Somebody else’s much better photo of the charred black grape toast than mine

The menu has a three toast options that are essentially like oversized bruschetta topped with various offerings.  We tried two.  The first was the above charred black grape with ricotta, ice wine and something called hyssop.  The dominant flavors I pulled out of this one came from the ricotta and the charred grape.  It was an interesting idea and the sweetness of the grape played pretty well with the ricotta.  I like a good textural element, so having the crunchy toast beneath it all actually was a nice choice.  This one was just okay for me, but we moved quickly to the next one – a carne cruda asada – that we found absolutely delicious.

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Yes, those are little quail eggs.  And beneath that is a mixture of cotija cheese, jalapeno and really flavorful meat.  It’s a play on steak tartare that was one of the best things I’ve eaten recently.  To be fair, if you’re not much of a raw meat person, this dish probably won’t work for you.  But for those who are on the adventurous side of dining, this one had more flavor than most tartare dishes I’ve had.  If I could have changed anything, I might have turned up the heat just a bit with more (or stronger) jalapenos.

Quick aside: I hadn’t read the San Diego Magazine interview I linked to at the top of this post until just now.  It was published almost a year ago.  I share it now because I think Blais absolutely nailed the vibe he described in the interview.  It may or may not be your thing, but if you read the interview and it sounds appealing I’d definitely check it out.  I suspect he’s more intense at work than the interview lets on – based on the stern look on his face the few times we glanced over, for whatever that’s worth – but his grasp of creating a concept that is both laid back and serious about the food is something I think San Diego food lovers will get behind.

Back to the food, let’s talk about this linguine and razor clams

Linguine in uni butter with razor clams

Linguine in uni butter with razor clams

One of my favorite concept restaurants in San Diego that closed recently served up a live sea urchin.  I’m not a huge fan of Uni, the name it is given when offered up as sushi.  No, actually, not only am I not a huge fan, I’d say I’m not a fan at all.  The texture gets me and so I can’t get past it to experience what I’m eating.  I may try it again next time out after this experience.  You see, this linguine dish was bathed in a very rich Uni butter that someone I took to be from the kitchen told us was made by combining Uni oil with butter.  Despite not caring for long noodles – I prefer something I can stab, long noodles are messy – this dish really grabs your sense of smell right away and sets you up for the first bite.  It’s such a strong smell that you can taste what’s coming before the first bite.  That bite doesn’t disappoint.  The razor clams were fine, a decent way to add another distinct flavor to the dish, but I think I actually liked the little crunch from the brioche croutons even more.  This dish was spot on.  If you like seafood, I suspect you’ll do well with this.  It’s a small enough portion that you won’t feel bloated if you eat like a regular person.  I failed that last test and so had to bring much of it home, but know that you could probably get share this as part of a few courses and if you linger a bit over your meal you shouldn’t have to roll out of this place.

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This is an off menu item my friend Gil Cabrera told me to order in our pre-meal Twitter conversation.   My wife tends to use Yelp as a filter and guidepost for restaurants, not that she’ll abandon options solely based on Yelp reviews, but she definitely gets a sense of the chatter.  I rarely consult Yelp, except through her or a foodie friend in town who has written like 3,000 reviews.  I do, however, turn to the Twitters.  Here’s the thing, I spend a fair amount of time talking about food on Twitter and commenting about other people’s conversations about food and linking to restaurant reviews.  So I’ve evolved a nice little network of people who really like good food that I can tap into when considering a new restaurant.  It’s like Yelp with a filter.  I don’t have to figure out if someone’s 1-star Yelp review is because the person’s view of a dish being “too-small” is compared to his or her preference for all-you-can-eat buffets.

Getting back to the burger and fries, I’d say the char on the burger gave it above average flavor, but just slightly above average.  I wasn’t bowled over, but did find the fries – which were apparently fried three times – to be delicious.  And the kimchi ketchup was an enjoyable surprise.  Right now, the best “regular” ketchup in the city is at Ritual Kitchen & Beer Garden in North Park in my opinion.  But if you want to get outside the traditional flavors this is an option you’ll be able to get behind.  I don’t suspect the fries will go with most of the other items I saw on the dinner menu, but if you are stopping in for a late lunch on a weekend or even a working lunch during the week this could be a quick go-to item.

BONUS! Adam & Madeleine

So, I mentioned how great Kyle was, giving us a good set of options to work off of, sharing more than a boring recitation of the menu with us.  I also alluded to our new table friends we met while checking each other’s food out early in our respective meals.  They were a north-of-8 couple with a toddler, which is to say that I don’t think this is an every night occurrence for them.  But they were as open to a laid back but food-focused experience as we were and it really added to the whole night.  We were able to preview a few dishes for one another.  We let them sample our charred grape toast, they sent the San Diego chicken our way.

*this is where a photo of the chicken would have been if I’d been on top of things*

Speaking of that San Diego chicken (clever name, Mr. Blais), it was a really interesting dish.  I know, you don’t expect to say that about chicken.  Madeleine literally let us hack off pieces of her chicken (how cool is that!) and the version they had on that night included chocolate and hazelnut in the preparation.  It’s not listed on the website menu as having those ingredients, so they might be playing with options, but it was really a take on your basic chicken entrée I’d never considered.  This is going to sound strange, but I think I got the chocolate right up front.  But it could have been mostly the hazelnut.  Maybe the cocktails had muted my palate.  Maybe I was so caught up with the many dishes flying around that I didn’t settle in and focus on this one.  My sense of the dish was based on two small bites, so I’ll probably need to try it again.  But I was certainly impressed and would put this on my to-do list for the return trip.

This trip was well worth the three weeks we waited to get in.  I understand there’s a shorter wait if you go during the week – especially on a Monday night.  Plus I suppose if the Chef typically takes that day off it’ll be a good chance to see how the Sous Chefs work when left in charge.  Some people are put off by what they see as fad restaurants or too many people trying to be at the trendy new “it” spot.  To each their own, but I see great competition for high quality food as a great thing for the San Diego/Baja region.  Several chefs in Tijuana and San Diego have elevated our local dining scene in recent years.  Having the world’s busiest international border and so many food cultures – from Latino to Ethiopian to Korean, Filipino and on – is really helping expand what our region creates.  If having “celebrity chefs” helps speed up the pace at which San Diego/Baja continues to develop as a region for excellent dining, I’m all for it.  This was a great nice of experiences and, in my view, definitely worth a visit.

**4/6/14 Update**

We took a return trip on a whim.  Wife had the “little bunny foo-foo” cocktail, I had the Pena cillin (mine was excellent).  Below are quick photos.  Short version of this story is as follows:

1.  Sit at table 304.  It’s upstairs and you can smell the kitchen and see everything unfold

2.  Get the carbonara.  Really, that’s it.  Thank me later.

3.  If you like sweets, get the Yodel…and pray they don’t take it off the menu.  It was ridiculous

4.  Karen was, dare I say, also well above the norm in the server category.  Lots of good tips.  Warm, open, and great menu knowledge.  Not sure who is in charge of the service team, but we are 2-for-2 so far.  I asked random and obscure questions about who did what in the kitchen, asked what was in every dish and how it was prepared, even asked what she really thought we should order.  We didn’t take her recs, but were thrilled to have them.  Not that often we get high quality service two times in a row, especially on a slow night – though almost all the 250 seats were filled – so J&I is ascending the ranks for the right reasons.

Now for the photos (no captions, just believe me when I tell you that the ones described above are very good.  And the vegetarian options are also good)…

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