A culinary gypsy settles down with Southern comfort in the CWE
Plan B. It’s never the best option. It requires great effort to make it look effortless. And most of us avoid it whenever possible. But not Juniper’s John Perkins. For years he sought out the kind of risks that make Plan B almost inevitable, hosting Entre underground dinners wherever he could find a willing property owner and with a volunteer staff whose culinary skills were sometimes very newly minted—kind of like his own. The self-taught chef insisted his Entre diners be risk-takers, too, serving them undisclosed menus in surprise destinations—like a central city loft, a half-rehabbed suburban ranch or a luxurious hunting lodge. Entre gradually morphed into catering services and then into pop-ups, which were a hit. Until they weren’t. At which point, Perkins had to go with the biggest Plan B ever—opening a full-fledged restaurant in his existing CWE catering space that was unfeasible for what he was envisioning. From the bar to the kitchen, almost everything had to go. He gave himself 11 days to pull it off. The result is Juniper.
Finger-lickin’ eats Perkins’ decision to go with Southern cuisine should resonate with anyone who has turned to comfort food to recover from Plan A gone awry. It’s also practical, with budget-friendly ingredients, strong seasonal variations and global influences that give him plenty of room to experiment. He does so liberally, starting with the signature chicken and waffles with peanut butter and pickles, a dish he proportions perfectly so every bite has a sweetsalty-sour combination. Even assuming you had pickled cauliflower sitting around at home, this dish would be tough to replicate. And you would never think to pair it with Gru?ner Veltliner. Some dishes, like the country ham sampler with spicy cucumber spears, focus on flavor nuances. Others seem straightforward, like the pimento cheese spread with white bread, until you consider the addition of—what’s this?—fried pig’s ear terrine. But there are dishes that don’t quite work, like too-brown angel biscuits, which didn’t live up to the promise of a lard-and-yeast confection. Buttermilk biscuits and hush puppies, on the other hand, were airy and delectable.Specials come and go weekly, sometimes seasonal (fried green tomatoes) and sometimes whimsical (the Kentucky hot brown sandwich, local heritage turkey on house-made pre-fermented bread, topped with a white cheddar mornay sauce). With a very short menu (chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, pork and beans and fried catfish), Perkins seems to be testing out which specials are keepers—maybe pork chops with redeye gravy, maybe fried chicken. And while we're sold on the buttermilk salted caramel ice cream, there’s certainly a case to be made for offering chess pie—every single day.
Lip-Smackin’ Drinks Rum, bourbon and rye whiskey anchor a cocktail menu more reminiscent of backwoods stills than front porches. The sugars and syrups take the edge off, but those looking for something sweet will do better adding spirits to the pure sugarcane sodas. A petite wine list is well-chosen for the cuisine and priced across the board at an even $36 per bottle/$9 per glass. Juniper’s draft beer selection starts out small, but the thoughtful cans and bottles make up for it. These range from local (Schalfly) to trendy (Ska Modus Hoperandi) to cliché (PBR tallboy). Props to Perkins for including Dixie Brewing out of New Orleans, whose Plan B sagas include Prohibition, bankruptcy and the lingering effects of Katrina. It’s a fitting beverage to hoist when congratulating Perkins for his ability to find an impressive silver lining.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg