Having been friendly acquaintances with Chef de Cuisine and business partner Romeo Tivoli for a few years, I’ve known a new restaurant in the old Café Pacific location was in the works for quite some time. I’ve eagerly anticipated the addition of a fresh, independent, fine dining concept in the Tri-Cities, as this area is oversaturated with fast-casual chains and fast food drive-thru ventures. I finally got my opportunity to sit through 3 courses with my closest friends on a recent visit home and left with a heart as full as my stomach. Like the atmosphere of the building itself, the menu is new but familiar, feeling approachable enough not to intimidate, but elevated enough to feel like an occasion to indulge with loved ones.
My first impression upon entry was the airy brightness the owners have managed to capture within the old farmhouse’s four walls. This time of year can lend a drab, gray darkness to any setting, but stepping out of the cold and into Juniper’s front sunroom was as welcome as the first 70 degree day in spring. Crisp, white shiplapped walls are adorned with brightly patterned quilts and framed photos from yesteryear, and as you wind your way through the building and up the stairs, pops of jade green jump from the mouldings beneath mid-century sconces and hanging fixtures. And the steep angles of the natural beadboard ceiling offer complimentary contrast to the white-topped tables below. My favorite aesthetic component of the space was the bar area, which greets you within feet from the host stand and offering brief glimpses into the bustling kitchen. The white marbled bartop is intimate, seating no more than 10 at a time, but feels un-cramped and effortless due to the bright natural light beaming in through a front-facing bay window, which is framed by open shelving full of glistening glassware and assorted wines and spirits.
As I’m notoriously always the first to arrive, I enjoyed a cocktail at the bar while I waited on my party to join. I was excited to see Ivy manning the shakers, as she’s an experienced bartender who has prepared a number of lovely libations for me over the years. Since I was there at 4:45pm, it was the time of day that I needed an energy boost but not too late to keep me up all night, so I requested an espresso martini with no substitutions or questions regarding preparation. I judge an establishment on how they make an espresso martini; some who have no idea what they’re doing will make such a thick, creamy monstrosity it may as well be a Mudslide. However, Ivy passed and excelled this test, creating a beautiful cocktail with a half-inch of well shaken foam topping a perfect mix of coffee, vodka and I dare say something almost coconut. I didn’t ask her secrets, but will not stop her from making me more down the road.
When everyone arrived we were seated in a corner table downstairs, another familiar face in the Johnson City hospitality scene greeting our table as our server. Josh Maples, or just Maples as I’ve always known him, has provided me with many a fun dining experience over our combined years in the area and this evening was no exception. He passed out the menus and informed us of the specials that evening, leaving us long enough to make our appetizer decisions. One of my favorite items from the entire Juniper menu might in fact be the wood roasted oysters. Smoky and savory, the bread crumbs and espellette butter offer a golden light spice that make this spin on oysters Rockefeller totally unique. The blistered shishitos are served with a side of ranch, which lends a southern wink-and-nudge to a traditionally Japanese dish. And the chicken pot pie croquettes are peak comfort food in a lady-like package; one bite into these neatly placed deep fried balls and your mouth is filled with an explosion of creamy home-cookin’. Again, a welcomed juxtaposition of presentation and delivery.
For dinner course I encouraged everyone to order different items so we could enjoy as much of the menu as possible. On the table landed slow roasted duck breast served with seasonal vegetables and a tableside umami broth, pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from locally owned Cured Meats, served with hericot vert (or fancy green beans) and grits, a few bowls of French onion soup and house-made focaccia bread with honey butter, and crispy brussels sprouts. All the meats were accurately cooked to preference and Juniper’s concerted effort to incorporate as many locally sourced ingredients was evident and appreciated, perfectly complimenting their thoughtful but uncomplicated pairings.
The wine list earned major points with me; quite frankly it’s one of the best in the area. Grapes from around the world are well-represented on just a handful of pages, offering the best selections from each region without becoming lengthy and intimidating. How refreshing it is to open a menu in East Tennessee and not have the wind sucked out of my sails by a mediocre “lesser of ten evils” selection of mass-produced California juice in various shades of white to red. You honestly cannot go wrong with any selection on this list, but some standouts to note would be the Terre Rouge Grenache Blanc for anything salad and appetizer, and the Kermit Lynch Rhone Valley Red Blend will compliment any of the meat offerings. I highly recommend starting your evening with a toast of bubbles, and their sparkling Rebula from Slovenia is the perfect crisp and festive glass. The prices are also insanely reasonable, which is always one of the most pleasant aspects for me when dining back home versus Nashville.
Finally, you absolutely do not want to skip dessert here. One of the owners is a pastry chef and it shines through in their after-dinner indulgences. It was a lengthy decision, but I finally landed on a warm, gooey peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie, topped with a fat scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. They’ve incorporated a pinch of sea salt that elevates this simple plate to positively sinful. I paired my dessert with a glass of Riesling, and this is the only place I can take issue with the Juniper menus- I wish there was a selection of dessert wines and ports offered to pair with these incredible sweet finishes. The Riesling did the trick, but a sauternes or 20 year port would have been perfection, and seems only a natural addition to the already well-rounded wine list. Regardless, dessert course was my favorite and ended the meal on a high note.
Juniper was worth my wait. The owners have captured an essence of forward thinking while honoring their roots which is desperately needed in the area. The delightfully unexpected but thoughtfully intentioned culinary and aesthetic choices will leave you feeling full but refreshed. I’m excited to see this menu evolve when the seasons turn and how the owners pivot this success into future local endeavors.