Arriving at Juniper one becomes instantly curious and inquisitive. The restaurant is nestled in a cove of small businesses along Cesar Chavez in East Austin and it’s quite industrial looking upon first glance. I was left wondering, is this the right place? The juxtaposition of the minimal industrial exterior against the rich and skillfully designed interior is the marvelous first impression of Juniper. It feels like a true hidden gem.
Beyond the glass façade you enter an extraordinary dining hall, truly designed for function, form and elegance. You will be completely transported into a realm of luxury. The design of the space uses natural materials like wood, stone, and glass, all appointed with rich hues and dramatic details; deep blues evoke the sea and through the wall of glass you can see the courtyard where a local herb garden conjures up spring in the Italian countryside. The prominent feature is the open concept kitchen and bar area complete with a chef’s counter. Hanging above the counter is an open steel tube which rounds from the ceiling down and cascades light for the guests. There is also a covered patio room as an extension into the courtyard if you want to feel more of a patio vibe. For the sake of maximum lighting, we took a seat by the window under a perfect dim light to start our meal.
The Tasting Menu
Juniper is a self-declared Northern Italian restaurant started in 2015 by Chef Nic Yanes. It’s quite evident that all of Chef Nic’s experiences have led him here to this moment: Culinary School at the renowned Western Culinary Institute in Portland and some of the best kitchens in the country from coast to coast. His menu is offered a la carte but today we sampled the prix fixe option which offers 6 courses for only $85 and an optional wine pairing at $65. I use the word “only” because I felt as though this experience is truly worth its weight in gold. For our meal we mixed and matched two tastings with the following courses: The bar is immediately set high when the House Focaccia with whipped ricotta and Calabrian honey arrives. The bread was fresh and warm and the ricotta melted straight away into the delicious honey that I would describe as purely sensual and a great way to start the meal. We also ordered the Post Oak-Grilled Octopus a la carte since it was not offered in the tasting and we were so glad that we did. The pulpo was tender and juicy, despite being smoked there were no signs of it being over cooked or dry and it continued the perfect score. For the next round we had the Puffy Potato with whipped dijon and herbs, which came out as a stack of little cigars in a cute pyramid for dipping into the dijon. Alongside this we had the Rainbow baby beets with whipped ricotta, chili vinaigrette, citrus and pistachio, which was a great way to cleanse the palette mid-way.
For the salad courses we tried one of each: the Little Lettuce with honey shallot vinaigrette and crispy parmesan bits as well as the Summer Greens with gorgonzola and pickled shallots in a date vinaigrette. Both were strong but the little lettuce salad was curated and stacked in a parfait of savory textures and colors and the edible flowers were the perfect touch.
For the pasta courses we tried the Carnaroli Risotto with braised shiitake mushrooms and roasted garlic and also the Campanelle with cannellini beans, bacon and escarole. It’s worth noting that the most popular dish here is the Cacio e Pepe, which I had had previously and is worth all the praise and likely the best CeP in town but today I wanted to try the others and they did not disappoint although I would still recommend the Cacio e Pepe for a first time experience.
The final main courses selected were the Roasted Diver Scallops with charred shishito peppers, fresno pepper puree in a brown butter sauce and the Post Oak-Grilled Prime Short Rib in a garlic vinaigrette and walnut bagna cauda. I felt the scallops really won the battle here, taking their cues from the octopus we ate earlier: The scallops were equally soft and succulent, tender and yet grilled to a perfect crust on the top, while the short rib was another juxtaposition that we enjoyed as it was fully cooked through and had a sort of crispy hardened crust from the peppering of the meat.
Although we tasted many courses, at Juniper the stomach definitely makes room for dessert. We ordered one of each: First we tried the pumpkin tart with butternut squash puree and vanilla ginger gelato. It was a seasonal representation that only Juniper can dream up. For me the star of the dessert course is The Milk & Honey, which is served as a white chocolate cremeux “donut” filled with jasmine milk jam and honey gelato. The richness of the creme and the jasmine jam pairs perfectly and although we didn’t have any I could see this being accompanied by any after dinner drink: port, cocktail, whisky, espresso or tea even.
I highly recommend Juniper for any occasion. There are many options in the full menu between the prix fixe and a la carte, lunch and dinner so you can keep going back and as the menu changes seasonally you will have countless opportunities to experience all that the marriage of Northern Italy and East Austin have to offer. It deserves a high ranking in our list of the best restaurants in Austin.