Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Last May, Richard Blais (Flip Burger Boutique, The Spence, Bravo's Top Chef: All-Stars, and Cook Your Ass Off on HLN) announced he was relocating from Atlanta to open a new restaurant in San Diego. After months of anticipation, Juniper & Ivy officially opened last Monday in an extensively renovated building on the northern edge of Little Italy.
The ambitious, multi-million dollar project is a partnership between chef-owner Blais, local investor Michael Rosen of Juniper Hospitality, and Concentrics Restaurants, an Atlanta-based consulting group. The culinary team is a mix of local talent and others who moved with Blais from Atlanta. Key members include executive chef Jon Sloan, sous-chef Anthony Wells, pastry chef Brad Chance, sommelier Tami Wong, and bartender Jen Queen. "We have an amazing team," says Blais. "Everyone here is so passionate."
Blais says he hopes Juniper & Ivy will fill a gap in the local dining scene, existing somewhere between the white tablecloth restaurants reserved for special occasions and the places to get "rip-roaring drunk and have some fried snacks" in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter.
The concept is "left coast cookery", which Blais says has two meanings. The first relates to where ingredients are sourced (the West coast, from Vancouver to Baja and as far as Hawaii). The second meaning is "left" in the political sense. "We're more progressive and liberal in way we think about what we're doing," says Blais.
Amidst the rush of pre-dinner prep, Blais gave me the rundown on his latest project and prepared some of his favorite dishes. But first, I must note—on Blais's behest—that he isn't typically this scruffy. Blais says he'll shave once he's confident that the restaurant is running smoothly. "I'm kind of like a hockey player during the playoffs," he explains.
When designing the menu, which is stocked with bar snacks, raw seafood, small plates, pastas, and entrées, Blais says he focused on creating the type of food he wants to eat. "A lot of people mistake me for the 'weird science, 24-course tasting menu' guy, and that's not really how I like to eat," he explains. "That's great a couple times a year, but I want to go out and order four or five different plates. I want one thing that's brand new and I've never tasted, and then I want a couple things that I just want to eat."
There are a few different ways to approach the menu. One is to hang out and have some drinks and bites. You could also come and eat nothing but raw seafood, have a bowl of pasta or a steak, or try the "4x4" tasting menu that will roll out in a few weeks, featuring four courses and four snacks that change daily ($69 per person).
My sworn duties as AHT's contributing editor also compel me to let you in on the secret menu "In & Haute" burger, made with Marin Sun Farms beef mixed with dry-aged fat, topped with mustard, grilled onions, animal style burger sauce, and bread and butter pickles ($17).
Blais sees the bar as "just another station" of the kitchen, and says bartender Jen Queen's efforts are pushing the creativity of the savory staff. "Our cocktail program and pastry program are really creative. If people are looking for molecular gastronomy, it's happening in our bar and our pastry kitchen," he says.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her San Diego food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax