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.
2400 E. Cesar Chavez St. #304. 512-220-9421, juniperaustin.com
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $7-$18.
Expect to spend: $75 per person (including one cocktail or glass of wine)
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Juniper represents the best of Austin’s recent wave of Italian restaurants, often in unexpected ways.