OK. Well that headline is a bit hard to prove—best according to what standard? So let me say something about what a “best restaurant” should be.
When I go out to eat, I usually want an adventure: flavors I’ve never experienced; something to learn; cooking that has a direction and a reason to exist; and innovation. There is nothing wrong with well-executed traditional cooking. I enjoy it. But if it doesn’t have that additional element of mystery and intrigue, it won’t get to the top of my list.
Using that standard, Juniper and Ivy is the best San Diego restaurant. There is really nothing else here that comes close.
The brainchild of Top Chef champ Richard Blais, Juniper and Ivy features some of his celebrated molecular techniques, although the dishes don’t feel like a science experiment. The “modernist” touches add a subtle, playful dimension to dishes that maintain some connection to more traditional dishes. Nothing on the menu is weird or off-putting; it seems designed to appeal to the adventurous without scaring the conservative San Diego clientele.
Blais dubs his style “left-coast cookery” which means most ingredients are from the Pacific Coast from Baja to Vancouver, with special emphasis on Baja cuisine. But the menu items include references to French, Spanish and Italian cuisines, foods from the American South, and the occasional Asian ingredient. It is best not to try to define this food except to say it is delicious and fascinating.
The worst problem is choosing from the extensive menu that includes snacks, raw seafood, small plates, toasts, pastas, entrées, and deserts. The small plates are so intriguing you might not have room for their entrees, which are huge.
The Crispy Oysters, perfect deep fried crunch on the outside, creamy oceanic goodness inside with wild onion and green pesto aiolis, were favorites—a simple but satisfying dish as was the pork sausage: “Jalapeno Chedderwurst” with mustard and “brussel kraut”. The pickled, shaved brussel sprouts were a nice touch providing fibrous, plucky contrast to the fatty, rich meat. A cinnamon-scented wild mushroom monkey bread, more savory than sweet, was fine but not impressive. Those were just the snacks.
Blackened Shrimp on Toast with cilantro and tangerine was given extra zest by crumbles of green chorizo (presumably made with tomatillos, green chile and cilantro), an homage to a lesser known form of that ubiquitous Mexican sausage. But for me, the show stopper among the small plates was the Strawberry Panzanella, a gorgeous mound of strawberry pesto, with pistachios and pecorino nestled in crisp sourdough croutons and frisée with thin slices of pickled fennel. The flavors popped and buzzed around the mouth like a sparkling wine. An octopus terrine followed—cubes of tender octopus encased in gelatin, with an understated green romesco sauce, mini-potatoes and some gentle heat from slices of red jalapeno. This was a miss for me. The gelatin seemed to mask the flavor of the octopus and the romesco sauce was not distinctive enough to rescue the dish.
After all of that we could only split an entrée. A pound of New York steak, served with bone-marrow-soaked croutons topped with a fried egg and meaty mushrooms slathered in a Bordelaise Sauce seemed like just the thing. This dish is positively inspired. Whoever came up with the idea of soaking bread in bone marrow deserves an award. Thankfully it was served with a bed of tangy-sweet red cabbage to provide contrast to the fat.
Our dessert is on my list for dish of the year—Brown Butter Ice Cream, served with Popcorn Mousse, torn croissant and lime curd, a joyful melange of flavors and textures. The richly-flavored, viscous ice cream surrounded by a feathery mousse that brought back memories of buckets of movie theatre popcorn, with crunchy pastry and the subtle bite of citrus, was sheer perfection.
Unlike the entrees, the portions for the small plates are on the small side but you don’t go to this restaurant looking for quantity. It is about being fascinated by food. If you’re still hungry order another dish. There is lots of turnover on the menu, which is a good thing, so repeated visits will give you new options from which to choose.
The atmosphere is informal, “warehouse chic” with metal and wooden rafters, concrete walls bearing artwork, and a bit too dark, not at all like the bright colors on their website. The noise level on a busy night was distracting. It did not make conversation impossible but we had to raise our voice more than was comfortable. The tables have plenty of room but those in the middle of the dining room feel busy with the staff buzzing about the room taking care of customers. Far from being pretentious and stuffy, Juniper and Ivy captures a friendly, neighborhood vibe with all the hubbub of a real urban neighborhood. But the waitstaff is attentive and knowledgeable, the open kitchen provides entertainment if you like to watch people running around with blowtorches and nitrogen tanks, and the wine list is fantastic, with unusual varietals such as Furmint, Viura, and Blaufrankisch, sharing space with old favorites. One of my pet peeves is high-end restaurants that don’t have a wide selection of dessert wines by the glass. But here we could choose Port, Sherry, Sauternes, or Beaume de Venise—heaven for me.
The greatest innovation may be the 5.00 valet service in Little Italy where parking is always an issue.
Reservations are a must and well ahead of your intended date.
This long-time San Diego resident has been griping for years about the conservative tastes in this otherwise sunny, vibrant city. Juniper and Ivy is the kind of restaurant that can turn San Diego’s dining scene around.
Cross-posted at San Diego Wine and Food