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Chef Richard Blais at play in the kitchen

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by Amy Finley | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | July 7, 2014

I try hard not to read too much into chefs’ reactions when I’m talking to them about food reviews, but Jon Sloan—the chef de cuisine under celebrity chef/partner Richard Blais at Juniper & Ivy—looks downright irked when I tell him that we want to shoot the restaurant’s carne cruda asada toast (see the opening page of this month’s food feature) for the magazine. “We’re shooting other dishes as well,” I assure him. It’s the Restaurant Issue: I feel like we’ve shot (and I’ve eaten) just about everything in San Diego at this point.

Sloan just shrugs. “It’s our most popular dish,” he says. “It’s been on the menu since day one.”

So why the ambivalence? I have a theory.

If you’ve eaten at Juniper & Ivy, the high-design, white-hot Little Italy newbie, chances are you know the carne toast. If you haven’t eaten there yet, you’ve still very likely heard of it (or seen it on a fellow foodie’s Instagram feed). It’s a riff on a tartare: eye of round beef—a lean, flavorful leg cut—finely chopped and mixed with salty, granular cotija cheese and jalapeno. It’s served atop a thick slice of toasted Bread & Cie onion batard and garnished with fried quail eggs. The flavor combination is such a winky take on San Diego’s taco-shop fixation, it was probably inevitable that the toast would become the restaurant’s mega hit.

If I were Sloan, this would probably irk me too. Not because the dish is lowbrow; it’s exceedingly clever—a sly way for transplant Blais, who moved here from Atlanta, to establish his S.D. bona fides by cooking in the vernacular. I’d be irked because Juniper & Ivy is a true cook’s kitchen, right down to its gorgeous, gleaming fixtures, capable of all the geek-out technique you’d expect from a spot piloted by a Top Chef Masters winner known for his whiz-bang way with molecular gastronomy. A souped-up tasting menu, the 4x4, is coming “when it comes” (according to Blais), and anticipation is high. The toast, comparatively, is just... simple. Fantastically craveable, but, if you’re a cook, not a headliner.

Obviously, that’s the catch-22 of a successful restaurant: They tend to take on a life of their own. And Juniper & Ivy is an unqualified success, anointing Little Italy S.D.’s premier dining neighborhood. The gleaming, hickory-topped bar opens at 4pm, and from that moment on (the first dinner seatings are at 5PM), the restaurant’s a buzzy scene. The carne toasts—along with other snacks and shared plates—fly out of the kitchen, headed for the bar, the coveted clover banquettes at the center of the restaurant or the outdoor patio, and A-list head bartender Jen Queen and her crew shake and stir furiously to keep pace with the orders for libations. Word is that other S.D. restaurants suffered an exodus when J&I began hiring, and it shows in the caliber of servers orchestrating the hustle and flow. With pop music on the sound system—everything from Motown to Radiohead to Run-D.M.C.—and very likely at least one person you know sitting nearby, it’s currently S.D.’s coolest party.

That works very well with an ever-changing menu that’s Left Coast-inspired, farm-sourced and designed for group dining: You’ll need a crowd to best savor the variety on offer (including the carne toast, of course). Treat the menu like a subtle flow chart—read it left-to-right, top-to-bottom and follow accordingly—and you’ll get the most out of your experience, right down to leaving with a copy of Blais’ signed cookbook.

Here’s a game plan: Arrive pre-reservation time (they’re a must, by the way) and start at the bar with one of Queen’s cocktails (the Soltera with tequila blanco, cucumber and mint is refreshing) and some snacks and raw plates, like the tender buttermilk biscuit with smoked butter; a platter of Carlsbad oysters with horseradish pearls; or the barbecue abalone with a spicy chorizo crumble. Appetite primed, move on to your table; hit the reset button; and treat pasta and toasts as starters. You’ll want at least one twirled forkful of the linguini and clams; its briny richness comes courtesy of S.D. uni butter and the garnish of toasted brioche crumbs lends crunch. This is prime time for sommelier Tami Wong and her wine list, which is heavy on food-friendly imports and best navigated with her insightful, playful help. With the carne cruda asada toast, for example, she’ll pair an effervescent Italian lambrusco, an unusual selection that further ups the dish’s ante on sophistication. Then it’s on to plates small and large for dinner, like a salad of Suzie’s Farm summer squash with burrata and pine nut crumble (for smaller appetites), or a gorgeous strip steak with smoked potatoes and kimchee ketchup (for diners with a hollow leg). You’ll need dessert too. Next to the carne toast, the yodel is arguably the restaurant’s most iconic dish: a meltaway chocolate shell filled with hazelnut brittle, dried strawberries, white chocolate and sandy cake crumbs that’s a hopeful hint of the 4x4 theatrics to come.

Yes, you’ll need a few days to recover. But for the type of meal that’s bound to (at last) land S.D.’s dining scene in the national spotlight, it’s worth it. And I say that with no hint of ambivalence.

Juniper & Ivy
2228 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, 619.269.9036
Sun.-Thu., 5-10PM; Fri.-Sat., 5-11PM 
Snacks, $5-$16; starters, $11-$21; small plates, $8-14; entrees, $19-35; desserts, $9-$12

Eye Candy
Works by S.D. artist Kim MacConnel grace the restaurant’s back walls, on loan from Quint Gallery in La Jolla. The gallery curated all the restaurant’s selections; look for changeups.

The Hot Seats
To sit at one of the central banquettes in the clover, or at the chef’s counter, you’ll need to make a special reservation. Without rezzers, there’s limited open seating, including a communal table at the bar.

Glass Act
No worshipping at the craft-beer altar here; instead it’s top-notch cocktails from Jen Queen and an off-the-beaten-path wine list from somm Tami Wong. Plus, this summer, it’s all about riesling.