What’s cookin’, San Diego?
Apparently a LOT. On a recent weekend away to escape the Chicago cold (I’m looking at you, Chiberia), I was pleased – and somewhat surprised – to find a ton of amazing things happening in the SD food scene.
From ethnic to rustic, progressive to comforting, molecular-driven to farm-to-table, the meals I had slayed! Perhaps I stayed away too long, or a quick culinary revolution has sprung up out of nowhere, but San Diego is 100% on the map with its eats. I actually attempted (i.e. begged) to extend my trip a few more days just to keep exploring the dining options. Sadly, it didn’t happen. So, for now, I’ve got a hefty wish list in my back pocket for next time and my recommendations for best in food for now.
Queenstown, Urban Solace, Extraordinary Desserts and Tiger! Tiger! all get honorable mention for San Diegan standouts, however, the top award for best meal of the trip easily goes to Richard Blais’ Juniper + Ivy.With the fear of sounding all Top Chef fangirl, I’m just gonna put it out there: Richard Blais is my spirit animal. Those glasses. That hair. The semi-smug perma-smirk. And, a restaurant evoking as much style and flavor as he does, it’s just so quirky-perfect. In a word, Juniper + Ivy rocks.
Pairing Blais’ intense creativity with the coastal vibe of San Diego makes for an experience that is totally refined yet completely laid back. The food and service are at an all-star level sans all of the pretense and fluff that typically comes with it. The staff is relaxed and the atmosphere is lively, contemporary and bold. Showing up in jeans, I was in the majority. Pairing them with Louboutins, I was not. Think “upscale beachy” vibe and plan your ensemble accordingly.
While the environs are relatively relaxed, the food is straight up innovatory. And by that, I mean really, really original with heaps of Blais’ signature details and whimsy. The first dish we sampled was the deviled eggs from the “snacks” category on the menu. They set the tone beautifully for what was to come. Gone were the traditional, rubbery, hardboiled egg white halves in favor of delicate, crunchy, light egg white meringues filled with yolk mousse and topped with cured ham. Insert wide eyes here. The play on texture elevated an old classic to something so elegant, I’ve been practicing my tiny meringue cups in the home-kitchen ever since.
Side note: I’m no good at tiny meringue cups.
Other noteworthy starters were the fresh Baja yellowtail tostadas and an array of “toasts” with my favorite being the carne cruda asada toast. I called it the “bad ass breakfast.” Crunchy bread remastered with carne tartare, jalapeños, velvety quail eggs and salty cotija cheese, it was all things a meaty, spicy, egg porn, dairy-holic needs for full-fledged satiation.
At this point our “small plates” started to arrive. I couldn’t discern much difference between the small plates and their predecessors, the raw plates, toasts, and snacks, but hey, more food is more food and we pressed on trying the baby artichokes dish and the almond & mesquite wood grilled carrots.
They were both lovely but the carrot dish was particularly gorgeous! Everything on the plate was vibrant and welcoming. The orange and purple carrots atop the jalapeño chimichurri played so well with the pickled apricot puree, it felt like Spring on a plate. This is the type of dish I imagine eating al fresco, beside a barn, with twinkly lights overhead. You know, if your life was particularly Ina Garten-ish. It took me on a little, rustic journey and I loved it.
Next up we gave the larger “plates” a go. These are the dishes that are composed most closely to individual entrées, though my party of 6 shared these, too. We tried the garden and grain (vegetarian dish), the beef shortrib, the spring lamb and a pasta dish, linguini and clams with uni butter.
Mmmmm uni butter.
These plates battled it out for pole position. One minute the silky linguini reigned supreme, then the hearty shortrib, but one thing was certain, the garden and grain took top honors for plating. With carrots that looked like a freaky hand reaching from the table, its theatrics were not lost on us. Whomever said vegetarian dishes have to be boring should take a gander this way. Most instagrammed pic of the night goes to those heirloom veggies.
Ultimately, I had to pick a frontrunner though and that title goes to the beef shortrib with cauliflower cous cous, bagna cauda and foie gras butter. As if beef shortribs aren’t luscious enough, Juniper + Ivy adds that little extra kick of luxurious savoriness with house-made foie butter. The dish was comforting while restrained. Pungent while mellow. So many adjectives! What could have become a mouthful of rich heaviness was balanced expertly with garlicky bagna cauda and tangy pickled cauliflower. Those notes of vinegar kept the dish bright and punchy. The shortrib just sang, I’m still dreaming of it now.
As if this feast wasn’t beastly enough, our server recommended we finish off with something sweet, Juniper + Ivy’s signature dessert, the “Yodel.” While it doesn’t actually yodel, and didn’t make me yodel, it is a dessert that should be on the shortlist of any chocolate lover. With a roll of devil’s food cake, white chocolate, hazelnut brittle and a hot chocolate sauce topper, it’s like a big chocolate log. If you think we made plenty of jokes at its expense, you’d be right.
For me, it came across a bit one-note. With chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate, I can’t imagine why? I didn’t find myself revisiting the dish or feeling the dessert quite matched the rest of the menu. Ironic considering dessert is often the achilles heel of Top Chef competitors.
A better choice may have been the tres leches cake also on the menu at the time of my visit.
Overall, impressions were wildly positive for Juniper + Ivy. Dinner was a treat with offerings that are both delicious and inventive. Blais certainly makes his mark with the menu and doesn’t just ride on his Top Chef alum notoriety. With presentation that is 100% on-point and friendly, knowledgeable service, Juniper + Ivy achieves a pretty flawless dining experience.
San Diego, you get two big thumbs up for pulling in some fine dining heavy hitters! Can’t wait to be back soon. In the meantime, more practicing those tiny meringue cups.
Juniper + Ivy | 2228 Kettner Boulevard | San Diego | CA | 92101