Thank Juniper Grill owner Steve Hughes, who, months before his restaurant's December debut, started dreaming up a different take on ho-hum herb-roasted chicken for his menu. Thank Hughes' chef, Todd Chrisman, for brainstorming with him through such uncommon poultry options as squab and quail (which, truth be told, probably would've proven just as delish) before agreeing on game hen. And thank sous chef Glenn Bahr, who nailed down the details of this outta-sight dish: brining the raw birds in a sugar-salt-seasoning solution for an entire day to soften their flesh, wrapping them in slices of slab bacon (props to the pig, too) and then, when the order comes in, whipping up the hen's apple-squash stuffing, firing up the oven, bathing the bird in its own pan juices (to bestow upon its skin extra crackle and shine) and doling up the whole harmonious affair on a bed of Napa cabbage and roasted seasonal vegetables.
The game hen's fresh, nubile flavor will have you raving. It tastes like the color pink. It's an entrée to floor you, a main course for the record books, nourishment to dream about at night.
And the same goes for a number of other lusty items served up at Juniper Grill -- a nifty, cheery little neighborhood place where the food reverberates quite effortlessly with true bistro style: modest and down-to-earth, yet bright with culinary panache.
Juniper Grill's most triumphant appetizer -- right up there with the game hen entrée -- is the King's Eggs. What an invention, a brunch staple gone chic: a pair of Champagne-poached eggs resting royally atop two round cakes of polenta, decked out with spears of perfect-green asparagus and baptized with just the right amount of a lemon-tasso hollandaise. Chef Chrisman speaks humbly of his polenta, which he claims to doctor minimally with just a little cumin, some hominy for texture and a little Parmesan cheese. But there must be crack or lithium in there, too; like the hen, this polenta is irresistible and habit-forming. (Good thing, then, that it's also available as an à la carte side dish.) Chrisman clearly knows his way around cornmeal; Juniper's bread basket pops with squares of crumbly, spicy cornbread seasoned with honey, bell peppers and green onions.
Other first-course options, which run a swift gamut through popular appetizers into innovative curios, soar. Flavorsome mouthfuls of smoked duck jazz up a helping of potstickers and revel in their great, sturdy dumpling casing. A grilled tuna remoulade, plated with potatoes, artichoke hearts and a lemon-caper dressing, comes off as a nice tweak on salade niçoise. Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, resting on a bed of fresh spinach and a sage-tinged cream sauce, taste like the ocean, breakfast and a backyard garden all at once. More novel delicacies include large pasta shells stuffed with a delicious, kicky mix of goat cheese, andouille sausage and crawfish, and chipotle cheddar potato cakes, sautéed and striped with an herb crème fraîche, thus reimagining an ordinary spud into something as crowd-pleasing as a crab cake.
Among entrées, the latent sweetness of duck breast gets charmed out via sautéing with dried cherries and flambéing in kirsch. Similar scrumptiousness oozes throughout an entrée of beef tenderloin tournedos, flambéed in brandy and served with a delicious Creole risotto seasoned with garlic, paprika, white onion and blackening spice. (Without really making a big deal out of it, Hughes and Chrisman pay subtle homage to Soulard's affninty for all things N'awlins -- except for the colorful, lively-bordering-on-gaudy, Mardi Gras-inspired mural that adorns one wall of the main dining room; it positively shouts.)
Ancho-chile-and-honey-glazed lamb chops (amped up with more of that polenta, yay!) were lip-smacking good -- although one evening they did come to the table fired medium-well when medium was requested. Two other entrées at that same meal were pleasant though likewise overdone: a cabernet filet mignon ordered medium-rare but served medium, and an off-menu seared tuna, cooked through on the inside.
The three small-plate salads may be the menu's only lapses. A house salad, treated to a nice mango-sherry vinaigrette and a handful of toasted almonds, was fine. It fared better than a wilted salad (greens, warm smoky tasso, julienne-sliced pears, cider vinaigrette), which was done in by the overly spiced pecans tossed on top of it. The Maytag blue in a blue cheese salad (romaine and chicory, crumbled bacon, tomatoes, creamy avocado dressing) also proved strangely out of place, refusing to jell with its fellow ingredients.
Juniper's desserts are all dandy, including a house-made, liqueur-spiked cheesecake, and a carrot cake and Baileys bombe that come from Craig Richter's Elite Desserts, a one-man pastry operation housed in the basement of nearby Lynch Street Bistro. But the final-course standout -- the pièce de résistance on par with the King's Eggs and the game hen -- are the banana crepes, a ridiculously simple trifle of sweetness and light, consisting of paper-thin pancakes, dollops of Bavarian cream, slices of firm, fresh banana, a few candied pecans and, on the side, a warm pool of caramel sauce.
The wine list's 38 bottles favor fine, if familiar, varietals (a Selbach Riesling, a Rodney Strong cabernet, a Steele merlot, a Walnut City pinot noir, a split of Mumm Cuvée Napa), more than half of them available by the glass and all priced quite reasonably; only four bottles (including a Moet & Chandon) cost more than $38. Incorporating a bit of truly old-school bistro fashion, Hughes -- a former GM at Remy's Kitchen and Wine Bar who claims his wife had to coach him into appreciating less expensive wines -- even offers a house red and a house white, each four bucks a glass, for folks who just want some vino in a glass, like a Chilean chardonnay or a cab-merlot blend.
Yet one more reason to express your gratitude for that game hen: Just a couple of weeks ago, it ranked as an endangered species on Juniper Grill's menu. It wasn't selling, says Hughes, and besides, it's really autumnal fare. But the first weekend it failed to appear on the menu, about fifteen returning diners asked for it. It's really saying something when an unassuming little storefront bistro -- in Soulard, no less, a nabe not known for its fine dining -- elicits such customer loyalty so quickly. Clearly, there's a lot to be thankful for here.
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