We were fortunate to have good friends from Boston come and stay with us for the Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. Their fifth wedding anniversary happened to fall on the Saturday, so they requested a “schmancy” restaurant dinner for that night, and I sent them a few ideas to choose from, including Play, Murray Street, and a couple of places we had not yet eaten but wanted to try, including Juniper and Absinthe. They selected Juniper, so I made a reservation for Saturday evening and off we all went.
We were greeted at the door by Eric Belchamber, the sommelier, which I took as a good sign. The room, which used to be a car dealership, still has all the huge plate glass windows open to the views of the street (not that attractive a 'hood, but whatever) but dampens the echoes well with plenty of linens, leather chairs and padded banquettes. The colour scheme is chocolate brown and white, very classy without being harsh.
After we'd had a chance to look over our menus, Eric came to offer wine recommendations to pair with our food. I was pleased that both a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer were available by the glass; I asked which he would recommend and he went with the Riesling. I was happy for the advice, as were Chris and D, who shared a half-litre of a Tempranillo (J went with a fancy martini). D was amused at my recognition of Eric's name (“are the sommeliers in Ottawa that famous?” he asked, to which I responded that I knew the name from reading local food blogs) but it was terrific to have the service offered without pretension.
An amusing side note to the evening was that one of the servers was training a new-ish busboy so he kept correcting him when he would go to remove our plates etc. I felt a little bad for the boy but I suppose one has to learn somehow.
Before our appetizers, we were treated to an amuse-bouche of smoked trout mousse with caper on a slice of cucumber; delightful and tasty. Then came the bread, two kinds, one made in-house (the other I suspect to have been Art-is-in baguette, very well-executed) served in a gorgeous wooden box. Our wine arrived, then our appetizers: D and I both ordered seared scallops with apple-dried cherry slaw, celeriac puree and crisp bacon, which we both agreed was a tour de force. The two scallops were each a good size and gorgeously seared to perfect firmness, sweet and not at all fishy. The thick slice of bacon cooked to a perfect snappy crisp had a terrific flavour, and the slaw was to die for. Neither of us thought the celeriac puree worked in perfect tandem with the rest of the elements (I might have chosen squash, or even mild white turnip) but it was tasty on its own.
J ordered the starter salad of fried green tomato with roasted corn vinagrette, lardons and herb-ricotta crostini. It disappeared with alacrity, as did Chris's soup, a curried puree of roasted beet, parsnip and apple with coriander yogurt and an apple fritter (I tried that, and it was lovely and smooth and well balanced).
The mains were equally well-received (and might I add that while we waited overlong for bread and amuses, the rest of the meal was paced delightfully) when they arrived. Chris and D both ordered duck, which arrived as a citrus-marinated sliced breast, ruby-rare, drizzled with port-fig reduction, with a phyllo bundle enclosing duck confit (almost rillette-like, Chris said) and pears alongside, accented with some crisp vegetables, half a roasted fig and a mound of caramelized onion chutney with pear and blue cheese. Both of them enjoyed it immensely, and I tried the duck breast and was impressed.
J ordered the vegetarian main, buttercup squash and sage ravioli with pecan-brown butter sauce and wilted autumn greens, which she adored. I went with the seared albacore tuna loin and was duly blown away by the flavour – buttery and smooth and far less fishy than the usual red tuna loin – not that I mind fishy, but this was different in a good way. The tuna had been glazed lightly in sake and soy, and was served beautifully rare, accompanied by a cool rice paper roll filled with vermicelli, mushrooms and vegetables to dip in a Chinese spoon of hot-sweet sauce, a small roasted heirloom carrot and some mirin-marinated baby bok choy. I would go back there tonight and eat that dish again, it was that good. Not a drop or a crumb remained when I had done with it.
The Riesling Eric selected for me was from Niagara's 2027 Cellars, a virtual winery that rents space from Featherstone. It was very nice and tart to begin, opening up to a softer and fruitier mouthfeel. I put it in the category of what I call 'flat” Rieslings, with no sparkle of effervescence on the tongue but a bold and acidic flavour (much like the Angels Gate Sussreserve Riesling). I liked it, but I admit to preferring that light sparkle in the mouth. Still, it complimented the dishes I ate very well, particularly the scallops.
The gentlemen enjoyed the Ramon Bilboa Crianza Tempranillo, which was described as having flavours and aromas of dried cherry and cigar box. Chris loves that sort of red so was quite pleased.
I passed on dessert, as there wasn't anything I really, really wanted, but I did have a gorgeous pot of orange-ginger herbal tea from Nectar down the road. J had the molten chocolate cake, a small, intense round nestled into a pool of white chocolate soup, topped with candied walnuts which I gratefully enjoyed. Chris took the server's recommendation and ordered the banana fritters with peanut butter ice cream, served in a dark chocolate cup, while David had the squash bread pudding with raisins, cinnamon ice cream and rum sauce (very tasty). He also enjoyed a couple of selections from the excellent whiskey list (some of them come with a square of 70 per cent Amadei bittersweet chocolate, a classy touch).
With the bill, mignardises for everyone – peanut butter chocolate chip miniature cupcakes with chocolate marzipan frosting. (I had mine and J's as she was full – so in the end I got dessert after all and it was wonderful and just enough.) We were there three hours and enjoyed ourselves so very much. A note about portion sizes – they are restrained, but not chintzy, and the high-quality ingredients make for very good value. Everyone was full but not stuffed, which is just right, and a second box of fresh, different bread was offered with our mains, which I also liked.
Juniper has officially been added to my list of “special occasion” restaurants in Ottawa. It was a great meal from start to sweet finish.