Juniper serves dinner Tu-Sa; brunch Su • Click here for menus, directions + reservations
If you drive down Austin’s Cesar Chavez and blink as you pass by, you’ll miss Juniper, tucked away between Blue Owl Brewing and Corner Vet. You may never have noticed it, but owner and executive chef Nicholas Yanes will be celebrating Juniper’s second anniversary in October. In fact, the restaurant has received a certain amount of notice, including a top 10 spot in the Austin American-Statesman’s “Top 25 Restaurants in the City.” The location is only unassuming, however, until you walk up to the larger-than-life entrance beside the adorable covered patio and open lounge area framed by stacks of firewood to form a cabin-like atmosphere with rustic chairs to recline upon before or after dinner. The garden boxes surrounding the restaurant offer the promise of home-grown herbs and vegetables.
The outdoor area is dog-friendly, and our puppy felt very welcomed, with the same offer as us of water with or without ice, and an enthusiastic greeting from the staff. The vibe on a Saturday night was post-modern hipster, with a dash of bachelorette party thrown in. The latter was likely due to the very large bridal party group seated behind us, which definitely overtook the vibe in the room. While this isn’t a jackets-and-tails kind of place, it’s a pretty good excuse to put on a nice dress, and perhaps the nicest pair of shorts for the gentlemen. This is Austin, after all.
Juniper bills itself as a farm-to-fork restaurant offering “contemporary fare inspired by the old world standards and culinary traditions of Northern Italy and the rich flavors of Texas.” I would characterize the fare as Italian-inspired fancy food. With many small plate offerings, you can try a variety of dishes, or order a couple of larger main dishes to share. I strongly suggest this methodology, although know your capacity to stop when you’ve had enough (remember, to-go is always a valid choice). We stopped just this side of “ohmigod-I’m-dying” full, but it was pretty hard to do. The servers are very knowledgeable about the constantly-rotating menu, and I do suggest taking their advice to choose your own dining adventure.
Of note, in addition to growing some of its own herbs and vegetables, Juniper sources ingredients from a variety of local growers, dairies, and farms, many of which will be familiar to Austin locavores and foodies, including Tecolote Farms, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Mill-King Dairy, and Boggy Creek Farm.
Our adventure began, as so many do, with cocktails. We opted for the Danza Meccanica vol. 1, and the Don Veto. The Danza Meccanica was a gorgeous concoction of branca menta, rum, pistachio, and lime (which was purple, causing us to research purple limes, which are, apparently, a thing). This was a very light, refreshing drink, although the pistachio was somewhat lost in the mix. The Don Veto was great for a bourbon-lover, with bourbon, Montenegro, honey, lemon, and “sunrise.” Very much along the lines of a fruity old-fashioned.
Then we began our dining adventure, which was long, winding, and very rich.
First, we enjoyed a selection of snacks from the patio menu. At the recommendation of our server, we tried the so-called puffy potato. We discovered that these are not, as we expected, fancy tater tots, but instead delicately fried gnocchi. The delightful little balls of potato were accompanied by a Dijon sauce so good we asked for more, and would easily have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, we were so enthralled by the sauce that we were inspired to create several Dijon-inspired dishes at home in the coming weeks. The server absolutely insisted that the only ingredients were mustard and cream, and indicated we were not the only people to disbelieve her. But disbelieve her we did, and still do. If heavenly balls of fried gnocchi aren’t your thing, see if you can get them to bring you a little dish of the Dijon anyway. You will not regret it.
The marinated eggplant with tomatoes and pickles on toast was perhaps the weakest dish of the night. I love eggplant, and had very high hopes for this dish. On its own it would have been a fine dish, but in comparison to how good everything else was, this one was notable for its lack of excitement, perhaps. While it wasn’t bland, precisely, the flavors didn’t meld together in a way that highlighted the eggplant itself, which is one of my favorite vegetables. It’s unlikely I’d get this dish again.
Another item from the snack menu was the Italian Street Corn, which you may recognize as elote if you’re familiar with the Mexican version. This cob came coated in mascarpone, ricotta, basil, and chili. It was as creamy and tasty as you might imagine, a little less tangy than the Mexican style, but every bit as delicious. The Cacio E Pepe, also from the patio menu, was a pasta with hard cheese and pepper, with an option to add shaved black truffles for an additional $12. Here’s a little-known fact: almost anytime you order “truffled” anything, it is most likely truffle-flavored oil, rather than anything actually made from truffles. This was a chance to try “real” truffles on our food, so we gave it a try. The pasta itself was delicious, creamy and flavorful, very decadent. The shaved truffles were decidedly less truffle-y than what we are used to tasting as truffle flavor. While it was worthwhile for the experience, we’re not likely to try those again.
We then moved on to the full menu selections. The first dish we tried was the orzo with gulf shrimp, blue crab, and pistou (a type of pesto). We were told that the orzo was hand-cut by the chef every day, a task which seems to me unimaginably labor-intensive. While it’s hard to know if this methodology makes for a better orzo, I can report that this orzo was tender and made a great base for the fish and sauce. It was much more delicate than the orzo to which I’ve become accustomed both in restaurants and at home. The crab and shrimp added a delightful accompaniment to the pasta, and the dish was not overwhelmingly rich, just pleasantly so. Our server highly recommended the stuffed pasta, which is a kind of fancy ravioli with corn, basil, and ricotta. This is one of the dishes to which you can add the shaved black truffle (we left it to the chef to choose which dish would best be served by the addition). The dish included five pasta pillows with a bit of an al dente shell to balance the delicate, creamy flavored center. This dish was solid, and I’m glad we did not add the truffle, which I believe might have overwhelmed the pasta.
The real star of the night, however, was the chicken liver with candied orange and dark chocolate, served with crispy focaccia. Yes, you read that right. When we asked if the chocolate and orange was on the side, we were told it was part of the dish itself, and was actually quite good. We ordered this out of nothing more than curiosity, and thank goodness we did. If it were socially acceptable to lick a plate clean, I would have done so. The velvety pudding of a liver concoction was one of the most delightful substances to ever have crossed my lips, and if this was the only dish I had tried I would have left very happy. The flavors melded together in the most delightful way, the sweetness neither detracting from nor overwhelming the liver, which itself was very delicate and in no way overbearing. The weakest part of the dish was the crispy bread, which was more ornamental than functional. It is impossible for me to recommend this dish highly enough.
Unfortunately, our meal choices were so ambitious that we found ourselves completely unable to try any dessert. On our next visit we’ll definitely make room. Although it’s hard to imagine anything better than that chicken liver dish. Unless it’s the Dijon sauce. No, definitely the chicken liver. Overall, we had an extremely pleasant evening enjoying a delicious, leisurely meal, along with excellent service. The ambience outdoors is lovely, and I highly recommend the patio if the weather is nice. And seriously, get the chicken liver.