Review: Juniper in St. Louis
Juniper, 360 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis, 314.329.7696, junipereats.com
I recently thought about two unrelated restaurant events from 2008: the unfortunate closing of Juniper Grill in Soulard and the exciting launch of John Perkins’ dining club dubbed Entre: Underground. Back then, Perkins kept his identity a mystery, assuming the name The Clandestine Chef. A year later, he revealed only his first name. When Chef John finally pulled back the shroud of secrecy, he was running short-term pop-up restaurants from Entre’s North Boyle Avenue space in the Central West End. First, there was the chicken-focused Le Coq, followed by the Southern-inspired A Good Man is Hard to Find and, most recently, the vegetable-themed Agrarian.
“I want to explore [Southern cooking] a little bit more,” Perkins told Sauce last September when asked about his next project post-Agrarian. “I don’t see a lot of low-country Southern, Mississippi Delta Southern food.” Now, like a bachelor who finally tied the knot, Perkins has settled on Juniper, his new venture that makes an honest (read: permanent) restaurant out of the A Good Man is Hard to Find Southern-dining concept.
I mention these two events from 2008 because I enjoy Juniper for many of the same reasons I miss Juniper Grill: a cozy neighborhood eatery serving unpretentious yet imaginative food; a place you can walk into and instantly feel at home. Juniper’s interior is fun and funky, rusticated by exposed brick walls; communal and two- and four-top tables made of reclaimed wood; and hanging lights tucked into birdcages. Three brightly painted, 1950s-style refrigerators stand behind the bar, like soldiers reporting for duty; one dispenses beer. Two beautifully haunting paintings by local artist Camden St. Claire grace the back wall. The largest vividly captures the Southern Gothic sentiment of Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story for which both the painting and Perkins’ Southern pop-up were named.
When first seated, it would be easy to fill up on addictively delicious deviled eggs and bread from the Snackies portion of the menu. A basket of bread is $9 for five breads or $5 for a half-order, which entails a choice of three. And oh that bread! Buttermilk biscuits, angel biscuits made with lard, cornbread, hush puppies and popovers all vie for attention. I found it best to order a half-basket with dinner. Also from the Snackies menu, there’s a tangy pimento grilled cheese made seductive with its bacon-and-Brussels sprouts jam.
Several favorites from A Good Man migrated to Juniper’s menu, including the humbly named entree, Pork-N-Beans. But there was nothing humble about this small, satisfying portion of red wattle pork belly cooked with the sous-vide method for half a day before hitting the deep-fryer upon ordering. Where pork belly can be overwhelmingly unctuous, Juniper’s version was lusciously meaty and fatty with a crispy, bronzed exterior. The addition of smoky, boldly flavored red peas, collard greens, a drizzle of maple syrup and a soft-fried egg elevated the dish from low-country to highbrow. Chicken and waffles also made it to Juniper’s menu, but the newly added shrimp and grits looked far more enticing in its little iron skillet. You’d expect the shrimp to be plump and perfectly cooked and the grits stone-ground and creamy – which they were, but the deep flavor and citrusy brightness of the gravy (made with shrimp shells) added a surprisingly delicious layer of complexity.
There was fried fish and chicken: the former, catfish breaded with Louisiana’s Zapp’s potato chips, the latter coated in a straight-forward batter. The fish was hot, crunchy and succulent, but the bed of sweet potato purée must have been plated well before the fish, leaving me just as cold. While the chicken was fine and the accompanying mashed potatoes and gravy superb, the portion could have included a drumstick or breast in addition to the thigh and wing, especially given the $18 price point. A bowl of Brussels sprouts, white beans and apple butter had everything it needed – texture, aroma, presentation – but the dish suffered from too much salt and the sprouts tasted as if they were grilled over a gas flame.
At this point, dessert might seem absurd. But then again, it’s hard to refrain from house-made salted-caramel buttermilk ice cream and doughnuts, especially when a Cointreau-spiked chocolate sauce was involved.
Wine is priced at $9 per glass and $36 per bottle. There’s nothing spectacular about the list (a mere four reds, four whites and two sparklings), but two of the whites – Spanish Arabako Txakolina Xarmant and French Larochette Manciat Mâcon Les Morizottes – were nice surprises. Of course, there is a Dixie lager among a couple of other bottle options, two Civil Life brews on tap and five beers in cans. Cocktails are the focus here – mostly those made with rum, rye and bourbon. Sit at the bar, ask for something flaming, and get ready for a show.
With a menu as varied as Juniper’s – from snacks to charcuterie, entrees to sweets, and a section dedicated to vegetables, you could construct as many meal combinations as Meryl Streep has Oscar nominations. But it may take several visits to get a good sense of everything Perkins is exploring. And that’s OK; turns out, finding the good man is not that hard.
360 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis, 314.329.7696, junipereats.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Pork-N-Beans, Zapp’s crusted catfish, pimento grilled cheese
Think hipster chic. On busy nights, be prepared for upper decibels and making friends at the communal table.
$17 to $19
Lunch: Wed. to Fri. carryout and delivery only – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: Wed. to Sat. – 5:30 to 10 p.m.