There are any number of solid reasons why culinary master Richard Blais won Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars challenge. Having recently dined at Juniper & Ivy, Blais’s new San Diego restaurant venture, it just so happens that my tastebuds have solid proof of his credentials. If you’ve not yet dined here, you really should be VERY envious right about now. However, in the event that you require more testimony to Mr. Blais’s credentials, here is a sneak peak at his impressive resumé:
* Graduate of the highly prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
* Training and experience at world-class restaurants including the French Laundry, Daniel, Chez Panisse and el Bulli.
* Two award-winning Atlanta-based eateries: The Spence new American eatery and several Flip Burger Boutique locations.
* Outstanding, innovative and trendsetting restaurant designs (spectacular eye candy for any design enthusiast).
* A new cookbook: “Try This at Home” Recipes from My Head to Your Plate (lamb shanks braised in root beer? Yum!).
* Stints on Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars, Burger Lab, Cook Your A$$ Off, Iron Chef America, and more.
* An impressive nomination for a James Beard Culinary Excellence Award (whoa!).
* Juniper & Ivy, a highly-acclaimed new restaurant on the edge of San Diego’s Little Italy District (get in there ASAP), and yet another culinary brainchild in the works at an adjacent building.
We San Diegans are mighty darn lucky that this east coast restaurateur and epicurean genius decided to indulge in Left Coast innovation and West Coast appetites. When I recently snagged a copy of the San Diego Magazine “Best Restaurants” issue and glimpsed a tantalizing cover photo of Juniper & Ivy’s “Garden & Grain” concoction blending vibrant heirloom veggies, fresh herbs and ancient grains with a duo of savory sauces, I instantly realized I was long overdue for a visit to this three-story beauty on Kettner Blvd. Quickly flipping to page 113, I saw that this brand spanking new eatery snagged Readers’ Pick and Critic’s Pick for “Best New Restaurant”, then scrambled for my Open Table app and promptly secured reservations (HIGHLY recommended). Upon arrival, our group of eight hungry patrons was escorted past an enticing two-story glass wine cellar and stunning bar area to a large table on the second floor overlook (no plates piled atop each other on a tiny tabletop here, thank you!) Now then, the dining event begins …
1. Perhaps you’re thinking this is probably just another buttermilk biscuit. NOT SO! Crowned with smoked butter and sea salt, and served in a sizzling hot cast iron Staub crock, this thing is a work of epicurean art. Moist, a little sweet, a little salty, harmonious … all in a biscuit?! I’ll bet that if topped with berries and cream, the buttermilk beauty would morph into a righteous dessert. This “I’m not a fan of biscuits” girl has been converted, but only by J&I’s rendition. I absolutely will not ruin my delightful memory of this masterpiece by ordering biscuits anywhere else.
2. Cobb salad never tasted so good. Suzie’s Farm organic greens, Indigo Rose heirloom tomatoes, cotija cheese, avocado, lamb bacon tossed in house-made poblano buttermilk dressing and topped with a soft boiled egg. That dressing is to die for!
3. Any food lover with a palate knows that blue cheese and pear are a splendid combination, but the spin that the Juniper & Ivy virtuosos take on on this combo sends flavors to a new level. Warm toast, nutty walnut flavors, creamy and tart blue cheese, crisp pears and pickled fennel? Yes, please!
4. Garden & Grain, a virtual taste explosion of roasted heirloom vegetables and ancient grains atop two savory sauces.
5. Warm toast prepared in the Spanish cruda-style; piled high with chopped beef, cotija cheese, jalapeño and quail eggs.
6. This pork addict could not possibly resist J&I’s rendition. Roasted peaches, corn and potatoes, white bean puree, a wicked chimichurri sauce and smoked almond flavors make this 14 oz. Berkshire Pork Porterhouse one of my all-time favorites!
7. Fingerling potatoes steamed in sea water (who would have thought a potato could taste so amazing??), juicy roasted chicken, chanterelle mushrooms, a spicy green harissa sauce, served with a side of au jus. Voîla!!
8. Here’s an In-N-Out style nod to left coast cookery. Toasted egg bun, three types of organic beef soaked in mustard and seared, grilled onions, bibb lettuce, crispy pickles, gooey cheese and house-made sauce. A heaping side of perfectly seasoned fries. What more could a connoisseur of all things burger possibly want or need?
Given the deeply complex and wildly creative layers of flavor found in every single plate we eight food lovers sampled, it seems as though Richard Blais’s famous “molecular gastronomy techniques” are inherently present in Juniper & Ivy’s ever-changing and inventive menu. Clearly, the creative genius and attention paid to yet the smallest of details will insure a level of success that will keep them at the top of San Diego’s evolutionary restaurant scene. Simply put, the trail-blazing Juniper & Ivy folks are masters of culinary excellence.
My only regret about Juniper & Ivy is that they’re not open for lunch. However, given the obvious time and effort it must take to create, source and prepare menu items with flavors on this level, the J&I culinary team would presumably need to begin preparations at midnight if they were indeed serving a restaurant full of hungry lunch patrons. So then, all is forgiven … this destination restaurant bordering San Diego’s fantastically wonderful Little Italy will remain at the top of my list of preferences for evening dining for a mighty long time. Congratulations, Mr. Blais, and thank you for landing in San Diego!