By any measure, Juniper & Ivy had a triumphant first year. Last March, the restaurant stunner splashed down in Little Italy and curious eaters have ventured into and returned to the 7,500-square-foot space at a steady clip ever since; along the way, they've earned accolades including Best New Restaurant as voted by Eater readers and the Union-Tribune and helped to establish the neighborhood as San Diego's hottest dining destination.
In January, the restaurant finally made good on its promise of a chef's tasting menu, launching a weekly Thursday night, eight-seat custom dining experience.
Working on this collective success was J&I's opening team, led by celebrity chef Richard Blais and owner Michael Rosen, includes executive chef Jon Sloan, chef de cuisine Anthony Wells, general manager Dan Pena and wine director Tami Wong, with acclaimed bartender Eric Johnson signed up to join their ranks next month.
Eater recently stopped by the Kettner Street restaurant to catch up with Blais, Rosen and Sloan as they reflected on One Year In.
Q: Can you sum up the past year?
Blais: You set goals but you don't know what to expect with a new project but I think it's been a storybook first year. We've been busy, cooking for over 300 people a night.
Q: When we talked a year ago, you wanted to "start a delicious conversation" in San Diego. Do you feel like you've accomplished that?
Blais: I don't think I came in here and did something that wasn't happening already; we've always said there's no difference between San Diego, L.A. and San Francisco, it's the same labor, same ingredients, things should be the same. But we've helped to further the conversation in Little Italy, there's something new opening in this community every day.
Q: Do you feel like you've gotten to know the San Diego diner?
Blais: I haven't seen any indication that San Diego isn't ready for any kind of cuisine. At least what we're doing - we're cooking for everybody, the neighborhood, North County, plus people from the L.A. and the Bay Area.
Q: What's been most challenging?
Blais: The grind of it, I was not expecting it to be this busy; it's been a great surprise.
Q: How's the tasting menu being received?
Blais: We've sold out the past four or five weeks. I'd like it to be more than one night - maybe get it up to three or four nights. We have an upstairs space, I could see maybe devoting it to that in the deep future.
Q: What unkillable dishes have emerged from the regular menu?
Blais: The biscuit, oysters and peals, beef tartare on toast; we tried to take away the linguni and clams but that didn't work. The yodel dessert will go through a spring evolution but it will stay.
Q: How was your last Top Chef experience, being on the other side?
Blais: I loved it. I've been judging for a couple different shows and though it's a lot easier than competing, it is harder than it looks. It was like going from the kids' table at Thanksgiving dinner to the adult side and you're sitting next to Aunt Padma.
Q: What do you think of the rumor that next season will be set in California and include San Diego? Are you signed up for more Top Chef?
Blais: That would be amazing. If that's the case then that's a great idea and I would be offended, personally, if they didn't come to San Diego. I hear from my people through other people that yes, I will be participating in hopefully a similar way.
Q: What's your plan for Juniper & Ivy in 2015?
Blais: We were blessed and lucky to get a lot of local acclaim, but we're all a little disappointed that we didn't get much national recognition. As the coach of this team, I think we got to the playoffs but we'd like to win a championship. We want to work to keep things up; when you're new, people are excited and the buzz is there, but the second year is a challenge.
Q: Can you talk numbers in terms of how successful of a year this has been?
Rosen: I picked a revenue number that might have been the wrong measure because places like Fogo de Chao and Dave and Busters have these huge numbers, but I thought if we stuck to our game plan as far as food and we still did these numbers, it would say a lot about us and the San Diego dining community.
Q: Have you gotten to know your diners?
Rosen: Our clientele is different every night of the week. Sunday is our largest age spread, from 30-year-olds with kids to 70 and 80-year-olds because they don't want to come on the weekends. Sunday and Monday, the average for bottles of wine is higher than Thursday, Friday and Saturday when the younger crowd is here.
Q: You've invested a lot in allowing the kitchen to have the freedom to create.
Rosen: I don't want to say that I didn't get into this as a business, but I was willing to blow through some parameters. There are days when our chef de cuisine Anthony Wells just plays and invents; it's an expensive luxury, but if it drives excitement and enables you to do something that changes people's perception, it's worth it.
Q: You're planning on opening a second concept this year. Have you also thought about opening another Juniper & Ivy?
We've had a lot of opportunities to do another Juniper & Ivy in L.A., San Francisco or Las Vegas, but it would be hard to recreate this building and the energy created here. I wouldn't say never, but we don't want to do anything to mess this up.
The new project will be really fun and creative and ingredient-driven; if it works, we'd love to do more.
Q: What are some things that have made the kitchen a success?
Sloan: Top of the line equipment and ingredients. We're trying to do 80-seat restaurant kind of food in a 300-seat space; we often do 400 covers on a Friday, that's 1600 plates of food. Richard, Anthony and I aren't on the line, we're coming up with the dishes and our staff's executing it. They're the hands and the taste buds and Dan and his team are our front line. It's all about making people feel respected and creating culture and community.
Q: You've been cooking in San Diego for a long time, how did local diners surprise you this year?
Sloan: The offal. I can't believe how well we've done with dishes of beef heart and tongue; we'll sell out of 20 pounds of tongue in two days. There have been times when we may have gotten too weird for people; the "abalogna", bologna made completely out of abalone or pickled mackerel with the skin may not have worked. But they loved the dry-aged lamb necks and half of a pig head carnitas. I didn't think some of it would work, but it did.