Juniper was trendy well before it snagged chef Cassy Vires, who just a couple of months ago shuttered her popular Home Wine Kitchen. But the James Beardnominated chef is right at home here, where home-style food meets experimentation.
The ambience at Juniper is homey, but the menu is ambitious, and I respect what they’re trying to do (and mostly succeeding). Pairings are deliberate blends of sweet and savory disguised as simple Southern comfort food. The cocktail-sipping hideaway, tucked into an old Gaslight Square storefront, is appealing inside, with exposed brick walls, long communal wood tables and well-versed foodies as servers. The whole package has a certain gastro chicness.
A Breadbasket starter ($9) includes specialty breads that were on the whole very good: shortbread, biscuit, popover, cornbread and a thick slice of Sally Lunn that was the only weak spot. The basket came with sorghum butter and apple butter, reflecting the winter season.
Of the remaining four ‘snackies,’ we had the signature Juniper’s Chicken & Waffles ($10), an inspired combination. Two fat chicken fingers come with a crisp flour-based coating resembling tempura, on top of crunchy waffles drizzled with pungent, tart and sweet fish sauce. Also on the plate are bread-and-butter pickles, made in-house. While it may seem like a random and weird plateful of food, the sweet elements mix beautifully with the savory (and slightly spicy) chicken and its crust. One complaint: our waffles were over-toasted, giving them a tough, too-crunchy finish.
Three Hoe Cakes ($10) were an ambitious effort to recreate the Chicken & Waffles-style success. Three small corn cakes came topped with, alternately, bacon and blue cheese, crème fraiche and trout, and duck rillette with pickled apples. But it wasn’t as successful, in part because pancakes need to be served piping hot or they get tough.
Of the toppings, the bacon was noteworthy: crunchy and meaty, as only house-smoked bacon can be. The cheese on it was cubed, an unusual presentation for blue cheese, and baked dry to yield a barely detectable skin. Maple syrup flavored it all. Speaking of which, do not miss the sweet tea here, as it is dosed with maple syrup for a surprisingly good gastro-treat.
The star entree was the Country Captain ($21), crispy quail, sectioned and served atop Carolina Gold rice and ‘currant stew,’ a sweet curry chutney. The tiny fowl was flavorful and tender, with crusty skin, and the rice, a nutty short-grain, was creamy. Curry, which easily can be overpowering, here was subtle and delicious.
Seafood Muddle ($35 for two) was less exciting, even with a poached duck egg on top. It tasted mostly of jalapeno and fennel, and the choice of seafood was boring (catfish and shrimp, with a few clams). Shrimp & Grits ($20) was good, but not quite flavorful enough in its light turmeric-saffron broth. The house-made bacon and andouille in there, however, were very good.
For dessert, I recommend the Biscuit Bread Pudding ($6), a good-sized hunk of buttermilk biscuit dough cooked spongy and delicious, with an appealing sticky top crust and bourbon sauce.
the scene | Hip gathering place with trendy comfort food
the chef | Cassy Vires
the prices | $9 to $10 starters, $17 to $21 entrees
the favorites | Chicken & Waffles, Country Captain, Biscuit Bread Pudding, Breadbasket
[chef chat] » cassy vires
your goal at Juniper | To get back to the basics and spend time on details.
Favorite dish | Country Captain
changes you’ve made | We recently put out a new menu, with my dishes on it. We’re also adding a tasting menu and utilizing the private space upstairs more.
three top ingredients for Southern cuisine | Bacon, bourbon and butter
plans for Spring | Another menu update
360 n. boyle ave. | 314.329.7696
Photos: Bill Barrett