Gin becomes a star at Juniper

With G&Ts that’ll rival the best of Barcelona, laid-back Juniper’s locally inspired culinary creations are as alluring as its bar list.

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      As its name implies, gin is the thing at Juniper, a newish restaurant and cocktail bar on Chinatown’s Silk Road. With several types of the fragrant spirit on offer, including many from local craft distilleries, you might wonder if the spot is relying on the gin shtick to carry it rather than pouring just as much thought and detail into its food menu.

      No need to fret: under the capable lead of executive chef Sarah Stewart, Juniper’s culinary component is as fresh and appealing as its bar list.

      Executive chef Sarah Stewart puts the finishing touches on the Saskatchewan black lentil cabbage rolls. 
      Amanda Siebert

      The drinks, to be sure, are killer. Focusing on Cascadian food and drink, the place has homed in on a growing trend: the popularity of gin. Where it used to be sipped primarily by our martini-swilling grandparents, the stuff’s experiencing a renaissance, with artisan distilleries showing up all over the province. (My guess is that, like wine tours, B.C. gin tours will soon become a major tourist attraction.)

      The G&Ts that beverage manager Shaun Layton has come up with rival those of the best Barcelona drink holes that serve nothing but; here, they come in balloon glasses with extra-large ice cubes and eye-catching garnishes. The Catalan blends Naramata’s Defender Island gin—a smoky, herbaceous spirit made with foraged B.C. botanicals and flame-charred rosemary—with Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic water, a hefty bunch of fresh thyme, and a thick grapefruit wedge. Fresh juniper berries and lemon peel are plopped in the resto’s namesake drink, a mix of Portland’s Aviation gin and Fentiman’s botanically brewed tonic. Other gins on offer include Wallflower from East Vancouver’s Odd Society Spirits; Long Table cucumber gin, another Vancouver product; and Duncan’s Ampersand gin, made with organic wheat.

      The Catalan gin and tonic is made with Defender Island gin, thyme, grapefruit, and Mediterranean tonic.
      Amanda Siebert

      Although gin plays a starring role, there are, of course, all sorts of other refreshments. Take North Vancouver’s Sons of Vancouver barrel -aged amaretto, Kelowna’s Okanagan Spirits’ aquavit, and Mapleshade Repose from Delta’s G & W Distilling, to name a few. Then there’s Oaxaca’s Alipus mescal—a drink that owner Lilian Steenbock favours. The businesswoman mother of five hails from Mexico City; she fell in love with ingredients native to the Pacific Northwest during several family summer trips over the years, she told the Georgia Straight in a phone call following our foursome’s anonymous visit. She also likes eating healthily.

      Steenbock chose well in hiring Stewart to execute her vision of a relaxing restaurant that would celebrate local food in creative, healthful ways. A native of Ontario’s Rideau Canal region, Stewart, who grew up helping tend her grandfather’s beehives and her grandmother’s vegetable garden, is fond of foraging, preserving, and canning. She began her culinary career at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s FRANK Restaurant; most recently, she was chef de cuisine at Edible Canada. She sources products from local farmers and suppliers like Two Rivers Specialty Meats, 7 Seas Fish Co., Organic Ocean Seafood, and Nelson the Seagull; all of the seafood is OceanWise.

      Most of Juniper’s plates are meant for sharing, with specific items changing with the seasons. Always on offer are charcuterie boards featuring various house-made terrines of local game, cured fish, and octopus as well as meat- and fish-based rillettes.

      The Saskatchewan black lentil cabbage rolls, complete with wild mushrooms, onion jus, and rainbow chard, paired with a Catalan gin and tonic.
      Amanda Siebert

      Dishes are textural and playful. A bright salad made with kale from Hazelmere Organic Farm is tossed with spiced almonds and hazelnuts, pickled apple, roasted parsnip, blue Claire cheese, and sherry vinegar. We loved the cabbage rolls stuffed with small black lentils from Saskatchewan. (Clearly, the definition of Cascadia is loose.) Packed with goodness, it’s a hearty and nourishing dish that vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike will swoon over, its flavour deepened with wild mushrooms and onion jus. Meat-eaters: start off with the toothsome beef jerky made in-house with natural root beer from Victoria’s Phillips Brewing Company.

      Arctic char is served skin side up atop a bed of purple potatoes with fennel, capers, and grilled rapini. The osso buco is a grown-up version of pork and beans, slices of spicy bison smokie accompanying the tender meat alongside maple-syrup-glazed chickpeas and honeyed carrots: sweet and homey.

      Juniper has a cozy-industrial feel with double-height ceilings plus a palette centred on black, grey, and white; minimalist light fixtures, including some made of copper pipes; and several different seating areas, including a couple of tucked-away booths, their sides covered in ash-coloured felt. Prices range from $5 and under (for snacks like root chips and spiced nuts and seeds) to $27 (for tourtière-spiced braised beef). If nothing else, go for a G&T or two, order a bowl of mixed olives, and imagine yourself kicking back in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter— ¡Salud !