Southern Bread: John Perkins' new restaurant, Juniper, does Dixie cuisine proud

Juniper owner and executive chef John Perkins. See photos: John Perkins’ Juniper Does Dixie Cuisine Proud
Jeninifer Silverberg
Juniper owner and executive chef John Perkins.

See photos: John Perkins’ Juniper Does Dixie Cuisine Proud

"I took the liberty of ordering us the breadbasket," my friend told me as I settled into my seat. "It's going to be ridiculous."

I can't believe she was able to resist digging into the platter of baked goodies until my arrival — that should have been my punishment for being late. But there they were, spread out before us like a scene out of Dr. Atkins' nightmares. There were flaky angel and buttermilk biscuits with crumbly, shortbreadlike edges. There was a rich, savory popover and sweet cornbread, still warm from its cast iron pan. And then there were the hush puppies. Oh, the hush puppies.

The bread service, though, doesn't come for free — as has become expected at most of St. Louis' finer restaurants. Juniper charges $9 for the privilege. And let me tell you, it is worth every penny.

St. Louis food insiders know Juniper's chef-proprietor John Perkins as the brains behind Entre, a private dining club (catered out of Perkins' home kitchen) that launched in 2008 and soon morphed into an underground culinary phenomenon. The buzz spread, leading to a series of pop-up restaurants based out of an event space on the northeast edge of the Central West End. The themed dinners, such as the Southern inspired "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" and "Le Coq," were so well received it was only a matter of time before Perkins set up shop on a more permanent basis.

To call Juniper cozy is an understatement. The interior looks as if Brooklyn hipsters rehabbed a barn in Kentucky bluegrass country. Exposed brick, lofted ceilings and built-in bookshelves set an inviting scene while vintage refrigerators and centerpieces of cotton blossoms and juniper sprigs add a touch of whimsy. It's the kind of place that necessitates craft cocktails and smoked meat, both of which are in abundant supply.

Inspired by the setting, we ordered a plate of the smoked trout. Juniper's version, served with country ham rillette, did the trick, balancing the savory smoke of the fish and pork with tart and sweet pickled apples. The result was a decadent creamy spread served on housemade benne (it's apparently no longer en vogue to call them sesame seeds) crackers.

See photos: John Perkins’ Juniper Does Dixie Cuisine Proud

Other standouts from the appetizer selection, or "Snackies" as the menu refers to them, are the pimento grilled cheese and the shrimp toast. The former oozes creamy, pepper-studded mild cheese, given a rich saltiness with the addition of bacon and Brussels sprouts. The shrimp toast is a tasty fusion of dim sum and Southern cooking, sinfully topped with garlic butter. The buttery fried fritter was almost too much of a good thing, but housemade pickles brought welcome balance to the plate.

Juniper's whimsy is on full display with the pork and beans entrée, a haute version of a lowbrow dish. At first the slice of Red Wattle pork belly looks small on the plate, but one bite reveals that any larger piece would send one into cardiac arrest. The pork belly had a crisp exterior that, once penetrated, revealed succulent layers of fat and meat. The pork was served atop red peas, sweetened from a drizzle of maple syrup, and some simple collards. A sunny-side-up egg placed over the center of the plate, its yolk oozing over the beans and greens, added richness to an already decadent dish.

Fried catfish is Southern enough, but Juniper's use of Louisiana's favorite Zapp's potato chips makes it even more so. Far from just a gimmick, the kettle-fried chips give a crispy coating to the fish while keeping it unbelievably moist. Juniper pays additional homage to the Bayou State with its shrimp and grits, a straightforward presentation of the classic dish. The grits were sensational — so creamy they almost seemed like mashed potatoes.

I was a tad disappointed with the chicken and waffles, partly because it is billed as the signature dish and partly because of the hype that surrounds this trendy combo. The fried chicken component was good, if not a tad dry, but I appreciated the breading's sweet and soylike flavor. On both occasions the waffles were a little chewy, and I did not care for their peanut-butter topping. There wasn't enough syrup to add moisture to the plate, and the peanut butter made the dish all the tackier on the tongue. Pickled red onion and cauliflower added some zip, but it was an odd pairing with the peanut butter. My dining companion informed me that Juniper has done different preparations of their chicken and waffles in the past, so I would be eager to try a different version.

The bread pudding made from waffles was much more enjoyable, as it had the syrupy stickiness that was missing from their savory main course counterpart. A dollop of pumpkin ice cream tied the dessert together with a winter spice undertone.

Rambling man Perkins may have taken his time to put down some roots, but with Juniper he's guaranteed to be here for a while. How long? With Perkins you never know. But certainly long enough for you to scrounge up $9 for the tastiest breadbasket this side of Baton Rouge.

See photos: John Perkins’ Juniper Does Dixie Cuisine Proud