Revelatory Juniper sits atop Austin’s recent Italian wave


A blue architectural detail crests above the bar and open kitchen at Juniper, threatening to tumble onto the Baltic blue banquette seats below. It evokes the ocean, and, if you were so inclined (which I am), you could see it representing the wave of Italian-inspired restaurants that has crashed on Austin’s dining shores over the past two years.

Labeling your restaurant Italian may be a risky proposition in this saturated market. But Juniper, which takes most of its Italian inspiration from the country’s north, is not the type of restaurant most diners probably imagine when considering the geographic provenance.

Yes, there are several pasta dishes, like broad strands of handmade pappardelle woven through a lush oxtail ragu piqued by horseradish ($14). And, a deconstructed tiramisu ($8) and pistachio cannoli oozing with mascarpone ($3) concluded an exceptional dinner one night. But you’ll also find a tequila-based cocktail (the smoky and smooth Mio Collega, $11), sumptuous chicken liver mousse smeared and dotted with candied grapefruit ($7), and blue crab and sunchoke chips bordering a velvety sunchoke cream ($12). Even the quirky but accessible and reasonably priced wine list hops from Oregon to Morocco to Slovenia.

Italian? Maybe not as you envisioned. But let’s not quibble over labels. After all, I have come to praise Juniper, not to bury her.

The beautiful restaurant helmed by executive chef Nic Yanes, former creative director at the Uchi Restaurant Group, not only wades into Italian waters but also treads into the sometimes suspect territory of small plates. Yet the restaurant, which feels bigger than its small dining room thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and 18-foot ceilings, doesn’t fall victim to some of that trend’s trappings.

There was nothing frustrating about plump pasta and roasted cauliflower capped by a bubble bath of brown butter foam on a dish drizzled with cherry emulsion ($11), or a plate of smoked and fried potatoes with tangy mackerel and a dusting of olive tapenade ($11). Thirteen dollars seemed a fair price for only three shrimp, seeing as the supple, entwined shrimp, draped with roasted tomatoes, sat atop an electric salsa verde given added depth from accompanying black garlic reduction. It was one of the best dishes I’ve had in this young year.

The only questionable serving size was a twirl of excellent thin pasta ($14) in brodo that showcased the salty and aged appeal of Parmesan. That frustrating trundle ensnared itself on my fork, making for two bites of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t dish. I wish there had been more of that particular pasta and more pasta options in general, as it’s some of the best in town.

The few flaws at Juniper, where service is as thoughtful and detail-oriented as the restaurant’s industrial-meets-natural aesthetic, appeared in a couple of imbalanced dishes. I’m an acid freak, but even I winced at the citric rush of lemon curd and relish in a grilled broccolini ($8) dish flecked with capers that needed more smoke to mute the acidic glow. Salt, meanwhile, overwhelmed a ham-infused brodo layered with rosy discs of turnips that looked like they’d be at home on the tapestry hanging on a hippie’s dorm room wall ($12).

The dishes increase in size as you make your way through the menu, but none could be considered entrée size. Big flavor and solid execution defined all the larger protein dishes. Persimmon and pickled onion gave sweet tang to tender pink medallions of duck ($15), nutty parsnip purée and basil oil contrasted nature’s earthy and bright bounty on a dish of crispy branzino topped with pink wedges of braised radish ($15), and seared lamb belly was complemented by smoked radish and a dissolving cloud of smoky ricotta ($15).

All the dishes, save for a pallid but robust dish of meaty salmon obscured by a tumult of fennel ($16), were delivered with artful precision. The plating spoke to Yanes’ time at Uchi, as did the wooden boards that carried oysters popped with sweet, herbaceous notes from fennel, amaro and roasted orange ($3 each). Even the juniper tree painted on the wall facing the chef’s counter seemed a gentle, if unintentional, nod to the cherry blossoms on the walls of Tyson Cole’s modernist Japanese restaurant.

With the stunning white stucco exterior, wicker chairs and various shades of blue inside, the elegant Juniper could pass as a seafood restaurant — just another example of the way in which the romantic and revelatory East Austin standout defies expectations.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Austin360 Eats

‘Den of Thieves’ kicks off bad-movie season in style
‘Den of Thieves’ kicks off bad-movie season in style

So this is how it works: In the fall, movies are intended to be good and usually are. In the summer, movies are intended to be bad but profitable, and they’re usually both. But in January and February, we get the special season. That’s when the movies are intended to be great but are often horrible. But not normal horrible. We’re...
A Berlin restaurant that cooks without compromise
A Berlin restaurant that cooks without compromise

Despite Berlin’s reputation for its uninhibited night life and progressive counterculture, traditionally the city’s fine dining restaurants have fit within the same ho-hum, predictable mold. In the past few years, several small but ambitious restaurants have managed to break free, but none have managed to match Berlin’s cheeky, creative...
This simple Portuguese soup will perk up your cold-weather doldrums
This simple Portuguese soup will perk up your cold-weather doldrums

For decades, vegetarians have looked to global cuisines for inspiration. The pioneer was Anna Thomas, author of "The Vegetarian Epicure," a 1972 bestseller. As Jonathan Kauffman writes in his captivating new book, "Hippie Food," at a time when much vegetarian food was brown-on-brown, Thomas "pored over Italian and Middle Eastern...
Indian food: Why is it so incredibly good?
Indian food: Why is it so incredibly good?

Everything you need to know about Indian food can be found in a single phrase in a cookbook by the otherwise reasonable Anupy Singla.   The book “Indian for Everyone” contains a recipe for Chana Aloo, a meal of curried chickpeas and potatoes. Calling the dish comforting and wholesome, she adds that it is — and this is the...
Where has this treat been all your life? Canada
Where has this treat been all your life? Canada

You could be forgiven if you’ve never eaten a butter tart. There is no flashy frosting or elaborate lattice to entice you. It’s easy to pass by. But Canadians will tell you that these diminutive treats hold an expanse of flavor and textures: flaky pastry, caramelized crust and a bracingly sweet filling. The butter tart is celebrated in...
More Stories