As a new season of “Top Chef” premiered last week, numerous articles have appeared about current contestants. DC’s own George Pagonis of Kapnos received a fair amount of press, and there was a collective sigh on my Twitter feed when he was sent home less than half way through the first episode. (I am hoping we will see him again before it’s over). Some of the media attention focuses on the success of previous contestants, including Richard Blais, winner of “Top Chef All Stars” and runner-up on Season 4. Blais appears this season as a recurring judge.
I have been a Blais fan since he first appeared on “Top Chef.” I admire his dedication to cooking outside the box. He has a raw intensity, and it’s clear that he is a crazy talented and passionate chef. He puts his skills on display in numerous television appearances and in a growing empire of restaurants, including the new Juniper & Ivy in San Diego. I seize the opportunity to dine there when I travel to San Diego for a conference.
The restaurant is full when we arrive at 7:30, with the expected array of casually hip patrons and heavily tattooed servers. The design is light and industrial, caramel colored wood and beige accents, with just a few pops of color displayed in artwork.
I am close to hyperventilating as I peruse the menu, described as “refined American food with left coast edge.” I contemplate how much food is reasonable to order, but not over-indulgent for our party of four. I finally have a chance to play judge of this “Top Chef” winner’s food for myself, and I want to get it right.
The menu at Juniper & Ivy boasts a potpourri of sections including snacks, raw, pasta, toast, small plates, and plates. Our visit coincides with the publication of a Washington Post article by Tom Sietsema entitled “Menu confusion: Plates of all sizes in quirky categories befuddle hungry diners.” While this menu perfectly illustrates Sietsema’s point, the dishes display inventive combinations of seasonal ingredients that make cutesy or confusing categories more palatable.
We are entranced right from the start with black mission fig with spiced ricotta, aged balsamic, and blood walnuts from the “snacks” section. Every bite crunches, tingles, and perks up our taste buds.
Another “snack” is pumpkin arancini fontina with sage and maple. The dish teases the changing season and makes us grateful for its arrival. Honey crisp apple – categorized as a small plate- is a concoction of crispy pig ears, endive, black cabbage, radicchio, pickled mustard seed, and caviar cider. The swift delivery of dishes is dizzying, but solid execution keeps our enthusiasm from waning.
Lamb bolognese with smoked rigatoni and gremolata hails from the “pasta” section. The crunchy topping gives way to thick noodles, a creamy sauce, and generous crumbles of lamb. I like that this classic dish finds its way onto a menu full of twists and turns.
Sweet potato ravioli with mascarpone, rosemary butter and charred pork belly is not overwrought with ingredients, but instead is a well balanced combination that makes for a supremely satisfying dish. It stands out in a parade of many hits.
We balance some of the heavier dishes with baja yellowtail with tostada and shark sauce, from the “raw” section of the menu. Our last hurrah is from the section titled “plates,” which is where the steak, chicken, and full-sized portions of fish reside. We’ve chosen the Berkshire pork shoulder which is paired with parsnip-cocoa, apple-garam masala jus, and hazelnuts. It is more than our appetites can handle at this point, but the tender meat glazed with a hint of sweet sauce is divine.
U-T San Diego recently named Juniper & Ivy 2014 Restaurant of the Year. According to the paper, Chef Blais can be found working in the restaurant up to five nights a week, when he is not off shooting “Top Chef” or his new show “The Hungry Games.” Chef Blais has put his mark on this exciting restaurant, and I’m elated about the opportunity to eat his food. The fact that the top chef is not in the house while I’m here is almost inconsequential. I can still issue a verdict. A visit to San Diego most definitely warrants a meal at Juniper & Ivy.
Juniper & Ivy, 2228 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA
U-T San Diego article naming Juniper & Ivy Restaurant of the Year