The Ivy League
Under star chef Richard Blais, Juniper & Ivy is in an elite class
Juniper & Ivy
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Carne cruda asada
Can I talk about the elephant in the car?” chef Richard Blais says to me on the way to the set of Food Network’s TV show, Guy’s Grocery Games, for which we’re both judges. “We’re sitting in the car together and in a couple months you’re going to be reviewing my restaurant. I’m not entirely comfortable with this.”
Blais has a comic bluntness.
“If I were you, that’s how I’d start my review.”
Blais has control issues.
“I’m going to go in and tell a real story as I see it,” I respond. “There is a way to be honest without being a total jerk.”
We became acquainted while filming the show. I like Blais. He’s a cherubic quip machine who forages for herbs in hotel parking lots (fennel at our Hilton). Plus, he’s kind of a diva, so the coffee on set is always better. But just as cooking food is his profession, restaurant criticism is mine. I’ve lost more than one chef friend because of my honesty. So I’m really, really glad Juniper & Ivy doesn’t suck.
This corner of Little Italy isn’t exactly a hot spot for the “Left Coast cookery.” It has to generate its own traffic. And yet on a Wednesday night the bar, lounge, dining room, and patio are packed. This was expected for the first month or two… but four?
Blais won Top Chef All-Stars. He’s famous. The “techno organic” chef (part old-school cooking, part sci-fi) is on site most days, hanging out in the wide-open kitchen, looking like a frazzled culinary Mensa laureate. The Internet has lots of voyeuristic photos of Blais doing his thing at J & I.
Dining at J & I is like having dinner in the coolest warehouse you’ve ever seen. Or a giant designer version of one of those owl boxes terminally bored people watch online. It’s beautiful—an urban iBarn of raw materials and local art (currently by San Diego artist Kim MacConnel). In the afternoons, a row of windows near the roof let in God-is-that-you? rays of sun. Strategically drawn curtains divide the rave-dinner space into sections.
The square bar greets guests. Bartender Jen Queen’s Devil in Disguise (rye whiskey, crème de mure, ginger beer, bitters) is an excellent berry-bourbon riff. She also makes a Sazerac with absinthe cotton candy. The gal is one of a few mezcaliers in the world. She’s good.
The patio—essentially a birdcage for people, with trellised ivy making you forget you’re squatting on a parking lot—is nicer than it has any right to be. But the best seat in the house might be at the edge of the bar, overlooking the dining room. This spot is built so that you can have a drink while surveying the entire jam-packed scene. It also gives you box seats for the open kitchen.
For most reviews, I fabricate anonymity and restaurants don’t notice me. But both nights at Juniper & Ivy, general manager Dan Pena (formerly of Searsucker) spots me within 30 seconds. Sommelier Tami Wong and I used to work together on a TV show about underground music. And I’ve had multiple conversations with Queen.
Never stood a chance.
So be it. All of L.A. can spot Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold. The New York Times’ Pete Wells looks like Uncle Andy from Weeds.
Question is: What can restaurants really do to tip the scales in their favor?
They can assign their top server to “the critic.” Both nights, I feel they do this. “They’ve stolen the best talent from my restaurants,” a restaurateur once said. He was grumpy. Understandable. It does seem like J & I pulled everyone’s favorite server from everyone’s favorite bistro—informed and passionate, not ass-kissy or third-wheelish. I pay attention to service at other tables to make sure we’re not just getting the media pucker-rump. We’re not. It’s excellent.
Chefs could make sure food is cooked perfectly. Does our “local corn” taste like the gleaming apex of Mexican street food because they’ve chosen an exquisitely grilled cob for “the critic”? Or does it taste like manna from el camino because one of their employees’ grandparents makes the Cotija cheese in Mexico (aged 15 days, it’s drier than American Cotija) that sings with lime, aioli, garlic, and jalapeño? I’m guessing the latter, since our corn isn’t grilled to perfection and I wish more of it had that smoky char to cut through the mayo/Cotija wonder-sauce.
Chefs can make a critic’s plate look like a Getty installation. But you’re either an artist or not. Get all Basquiat on a whim and you’ll end up with a precious mess that’ll make Bob Ross’ hair flatten in the grave. Many of our dishes, including the Japanese sweet potato, are loaded with cute herbs, flowers, and flavorful stems. The effect is a little too much, actually. Like some hippie’s potpourri fell on your dinner. Remove the herbal flotsam, however, and that potato is delicious. It’s just like the baked potato you used to order at Wendy’s, except there’s nori butter instead of the yellowy kinda-butter. Instead of bacon bits, you get miso-soy pork belly gems. There’s yuzu in your sour cream. And seaweed instead of chives. Welcome to Japan, middle American belt-buckle food.
Chefs could re-cook something that wasn’t done to perfection. But that takes time, delaying service. Plus, it’s not like you could re-cook the very good lamb neck—a thunderous Yule log of slow-braised, dry-aged meat in a Romesco sauce over couscous that could feed two or more ($50). It’s a huge homage to Morocco and tip-to-tail eating. It’s off-menu for summer, but the mere fact of doing dry-aged lamb neck (which really cuts and chews like delicious pork butt or stew meat) speaks to the progressive food ambitions of J & I.
Chefs could add extra sauce, which basically airbrushes a critic’s dish and covers up mistakes. But doing so to the Baja yellowtail tostada would throw off the almighty balance and turn beautiful cubes of seafood into anonymous nubs of drowned protein. As is, the tostada is just about perfect—fried corn tortilla, Asian mayo, pickled radish with “shark sauce” (the made-in-Thailand version of sriracha that chefs like Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker go nuts for).
They can give heftier portions. But I tend to not do a cost-per-pound analysis for reviews unless you’re charging a buck per teardrop of aioli.
One thing they can’t do is change recipes. For instance, Blais’ pickled mackerel with tarragon aioli doesn’t work for me at all. I like that they’re attempting mackerel, which is the gamey mutton of seafood (and one of my favorites). Pickling it, à la sushi restaurants, combats the bombastic aquatic musk and firms up the meat. But mine is pickled too intensely, making for a super-acidic bite that’s a bit mealy from the enzymatic barrage. The skin is also incredibly chewy, making me wonder if they forgot to take off the notoriously tough outer layer. But the seawater potatoes—a Scottish/New York classic, in which saltwater boils at a higher temp, cooking more of the starch than a potato boiled in regular water—are incredibly creamy.
Blais’ trademark creativity, while tempered (you get the feeling he’s a bit tired of science tricks and wants to prove his classical skills at J & I), is definitely present. There’s oysters and pearls, an homage to Keller’s famous dish, with local Carlsbad oysters, charred tomatillo, and horseradish pearls (frozen with liquid nitro).
Aside from the mackerel, most of what we eat here falls in the good-to-excellent range. The corn agnolotti with foraged mushrooms (lobster and chanterelles) and huitlacoche (Mexican corn smut—a musky, truffle-like flavor) is good. The carne cruda asada (raw beef cubes, toast, Cotija cheese, jalapeño, and fried quail eggs) is excellent. So is the brined and sous vide pork porterhouse with white corn puree, peach, smoked almond, and dandelion chimichurri. The smoked almond gel and milk bring the dish to unchartered levels of yes, proving belly isn’t the only cut of swine with potential for greatness in the right hands.
It’s not perfect. With hard floors and no acoustic paneling, the place is a cranked-up chatterdome. I don’t mind the loud sounds of happy humans. I like the clang of life. But it’s so much that you can’t really hear the music, which I’m sure the Coachella-style staff obsesses over. And watch out for those Kleenex-style boxes of hand towels in the communal washroom (Hint: find a box where a towel is “popped up,” and never reach down through the plastic, unless you really like to be heebed-and-jeebed).
So that’s my real story of Juniper & Ivy. Acquaintances and anonymity aside, I just can’t see how this is not one of the best restaurants in the city. The only question is: For how long?
Blais moved his family to San Diego, so J & I doesn’t in any way seem like a pit stop. But with celebrity chef restaurants, it’s inevitable. There will be TV appearances, books, speaking engagements, other restaurants and businesses. There are bound to be stretches when the main attraction—Blais—simply can’t be there, or in San Diego, for that matter.
If the hires are right and the training’s obsessive, it can work. Blais’ choice for chef de cuisine shows that while his ideas on food may be esoteric, his nose for business is not. He took Jonathan Sloan from Roy’s—a respectable island-style chain that will never be confused with Momofuku or Animal. But it’s a smart move. Blais is never short on creativity. His brain crackles like a live electrical wire. What he needs is a chef who knows how to handle sheer volume—600, 800 guests a night. That’s not to say Sloan isn’t creative; it’s just to say he’s capable of handling a big, cranking machine.
He’ll have to. J & I’s continued success will depend on it.