Monday, October 13, 2014

Juniper and Ivy - San Diego

Trail Blais-ing in San Diego

Everyone had been jawing about Juniper and Ivy since it opened in March, and they all had something different to say – interesting, over-priced, crowded, inventive - but I really needed to see for myself.  As a Top Chef fan from the start, I’d considered Chef Richard Blais to be one of the most dynamic of all the seasons.

He was the kitchen’s answer to Dr. Frankenstein with a cerebral magnificence that many times left him teetering on the edge of sanity. But right before falling victim to an anxiety-ridden, food-fueled fit, Blais usually rallied as the unlikely hero, who not only recovered, but doubled-down, performing above (and beyond) board.

We were met by a firm handshake of masculine minimalism that mixed modern log cabin with industrial warehouse – was this what "glamping" looked like?  Its unassuming luxury brought a genuine air of comfort and offered polished ruggedness amongst the eye-catching duct work and raised rafters.

The kitchen’s long, low counter brought a full view of its inner workings to the dining room. The accessibility made it seem informal, almost familial (if your OCD uncle ran the kitchen, because boy, was it clean!), and I had to hold myself back from wandering in and grabbing a macaron off the dessert station.  

I went there craving crab fritters and the bone marrow toast I’d heard so much about, but these had already been wiped off the menu and replaced by more recent creations from the never-ending storyboard in Blais’ head. But that was how he worked. He never admired any of his dishes for too long, so it was wise not to get too attached to any favorites here.

Amuse bread: Gruyere puff

Though this "amuse bouche" was really just a bread course, it still made me feel like a lady to have this fluffy, cheese puff formally introduced to me.


Squash Blossom Relleno: White Cheddar/ Poblano/ Tomatillo

Special delivery: one petite, fried parcel! Surrounded in a bow of batter, my fried squash blossom was perched like a demur flower before it took a sharp turn with cheddar, which oozed with biting intensity. But that was quickly evened out with the mildness of tomatillo, tangy crumbles of queso, and dabs of thick, balsamic reduction that brought out a slightly sweet note.

Boniato Potato: Nori Butter/ Pork Belly/ Yuzu Sour Cream
Ok. This dish right here, was the reason I came. Not that I immediately recognized it. In fact, when we ordered this, I agreed it sounded good (yawn), if not somewhat run of the mill. But I was about to get served (literally and figuratively). This was how it went down:

Me: “Yeah, yeah, I get it – like a play on a baked potato with bacon and sour cream. Big deal.”

Potatoes (aka The Po’s) show up. Squat, puffed up, crisp coats.

The Po’s: “Why you being such a tater hater?”

Me: “I’m bored. Show me something I haven’t seen before.”

The Po’s: “Check this out! You ever seen real “belly” dancing?!”

Potatoes fan out and reveal thick slices of caramelized, crispy pork belly. Snags of miniature seaweed bathed in butter sprout from the top, balls of mustard seed start spinning, squirts of citrusy, Yuzu sour cream rain down, and all land on my tongue in one electric boogaloo of a bite.

Me, staring with mouth agape (and full of potato) in awe and amazement.

Alright, I had to admit it - these Po’s were pros - this was by far my favorite.


Pear Toast: Walnut Butter/ Fennel/ Pt Reyes Blue

All the ingredients sounded like a flawless marriage, but so many times with “toasts”, there was the structural foundation to consider. How many times had I eaten bruschetta where the toast had broken, became soggy, or all the ingredients had slid off in one bite? Too many to count.

But Blais had picked a sturdy, ciabatta-like bread that was browned, but not "break your teeth" tough, to layer his ingredients. His engineer mind created the perfect equation of toppings - from weight, to height, to depth - everything stayed where it should. Walnut butter acted like nutty mortar to sweet slices of pear laid into the framework, while the Pt Reyes Blue stuck between the crevices in one of the only instances where mold in a structure could be seen as a positive, and passed my inspection with flying colors.


Prawn and Pork: Smoked Rigatoni/ Spicy Italian Sausage/ Prawns
When I read this on the menu, my mind immediately whipped up an image of two prawns still in their armor with heads and antennae attached, attacking a sausage link above a battleground of smoky rigatoni. That's not what happened...though it did taste as horrifying as war.

A couple of beheaded, de-shelled, chopped, overcooked shrimp (and yes, by a couple I mean two) could be foraged from the mush of tasteless rigatoni. But even worse, was what Blais deemed as “sausage”. First of all, this "sausage" was square. Not that I'm a shape discriminator, and I'm not a huge fan of casing, but this pre-formed patty looked like it had been hung out to (bone) dry in a mini-meatloaf pan. This looked/tasted like no sausage I'd ever seen or would ever want to encounter again.

Plus, was this teeny, tiny bowl REALLY $24??!! For two shrimp, meatloaf mush and some craptastic rigatoni?! Pfft. When the waitress took our plates and asked how it was, I made a grimace and said, "Definitely not my favorite. It's so different from the other dishes."

She answered, “Yeah, it’s a more rustic dish.”

Is that what they called it? Myself? I had a few other choice words that came to mind.


Yodel: Devil’s Cake/ White Chocolate/ Hazelnut Brittle/ Hot Chocolate
Yodel-ay-hee-hooo...hoooly shit! This was one of the best desserts I’d ever had. Just like my prejudiced perspective on the potatoes, I thought, “Great, another chocolate dessert. Been there, done that.”

And not being much of a sweets person, I wasn’t too enthralled, until they brought an edible construction site of sugar to the table, forcing me to sit up straight in my seat as a miniature pitcher of hot chocolate was poured like a cauldron of melted steel over a dark chocolate cylinder, which partially melted away to reveal an interior filled with some type of chocolate mousse/gnanche-like substance.

Besides the pipeline of chocolate, dessert debris was scattered everywhere – white and milk chocolate pearls, small squishes of fresh strawberry, and the best piece of sugar shrapnel: hazelnut brittle. Even though there seemed to be endless components, they all worked as one. We didn't leave one bite on the plate and I was sad to see this scavenger hunt for the senses end so quickly.

Bittersweet, brown butter goodbyes

The last goodbye from Blais came in two, barely memorable, brown butter cookies, but it was still a nice touch. Overall, I was impressed with Juniper and Ivy - interestingly enough, most of my enthusiasm was for items that seemed tired and played out, but the unexplored interpretation from the mad chef made me shift my perspective and see a fresh side to classic ingredients. The cerebral track was Chef Blais' strong suit and next time I'd stay away from the entree section (which seemed forced - did his investors insist on that?) and stick with the smaller plates.