Dining Outside at Juniper & Ivy, San Diego
Richard Blais of “Top Chef” fame may no longer be affiliated with Juniper & Ivy, where he was the founding chef, but this San Diego establishment remains as popular as ever.
Opened in 2014 by owner Michael Rosen in an abandoned warehouse, it kick-started a new renaissance in the city’s Little Italy. The kitchen is now helmed by Chef Anthony Wells, a James Beard semi-finalist.
When my husband and I dined on a recent Saturday night while on a Southern California road trip, the place was hopping with the dining room and bar full, and a group of fashionably dressed women celebrating some sort of occasion in the private dining room.
We dined outside on the outdoor patio that has a living wall, as well as plenty of potted plants and a canopy awning overhead. One thing it doesn’t have, though, is heaters. So, be sure to dress in layers, especially if you tend to linger at dinner.
You could easily make a meal off the variety of shareable small plates rather than go for full-on entrees. That’s exactly what we decided to do, starting with the clever halibut hand-rolls ($14). Two to an order, these weren’t your usual nori-wrapped hand-rolls but tinier, more delicate ones made with shiso leaves instead. Inside was snuggled chopped raw halibut with sushi rice seasoned with yuzu kosho aioli, tamari and furikake. Pop one into your mouth and it’s an explosion of minty-like freshness playing up the clean taste of the fish and the citrusy aioli.
Baked oysters (4 for $18) come nestled into rock salt dotted with pink and black peppercorns. The oysters are plump and juicy in a straightforward rendition of rich herb-butter and crunchy bread crumbs.
To satisfy my carb appetite, I couldn’t pass up the loaf of sourdough ($5), which arrives warm, all crusty, chewy and tangy, with house-cultured butter to smear on.
The hamachi tostada ($13) is a looker and benefits a good cause. Throughout October, a portion of sales is donated to Feeding San Diego, a leading hunger-relief organization. Thin slices of raw hamachi cover the crisp tortilla, along with pickled squash; pumpkin gochujang; and spicy, earthy and nutty salsa macha. It’s a mouthful that’s at once sweet, tangy, and spicy.
The Reed avocado ($21) is a rich dish with sliced avocado arrayed on the plate baby peppers, cherry tomatoes, smoked egg yolk, and a creamy Goddess-like dressing underneath. Pork belly nuggets (like bacon bits) plus puffed buck wheat added a good dose of crunch.
Pastas fall under “small plates” on the menu and are large enough to share or to enjoy solo as an entree. The agnolotti ($22) are elongated little pasta packages wrapped around a filling of sweet potatoes. Brussel sprouts leaves, toasted cashews, smoked mushrooms, and “hippy crunch” (a mix of toasted seeds, nuts and grains) completed this satisfying autumnal dish.
The uni linguini ($26) is a rich and creamy tangle with a dash of smokiness from chorizo and a subtle saltiness from cotija. A big lobe of sea urchin crowns it all.
The restaurant’s signature dessert is the yodel ($17), which is reminiscent of a candy-coated Ho Ho. Designed to serve two, its exact flavor changes from time to time. On this occasion, it sported a banana cream filling with chocolate peanuts strewn around the plate with bruleed banana slices.
When the plate is set down, a server pours warm, white chocolate caramel sauce over it all. I’m not sure this last flourish is necessarily needed, as it makes for one very sweet dessert. But it’s definitely a nostalgic one with the childhood taste of a frozen chocolate banana, only done up more fancifully.