Know your audience. It’s one of the first commandments of running a restaurant. Dave Becker knows his. He took over Needham’s Sweet Basil in 2000, and today the place has as much of a reputation for long lines as it does for the lusty Italian fare served on pottery Becker makes himself. Locals welcome good food and quirky charm.
In July, Becker and crew opened Juniper in Wellesley, this time serving Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. The neighbors are clearly hungry for this kind of place. On a Wednesday at the end of summer, the restaurant is a party. It’s so busy the crowd drowns out the room’s awkward layout: Tables snake from the bar area at front through a narrow corridor and into the blue-walled dining room. The welcoming hosts corral the chaos. (Like Sweet Basil, Juniper doesn’t take reservations, but it does serve alcohol.) Beneath dangling plants and glossy orange chandeliers, couples occupy bar stools and families cram into high tops. Maroon booths are crowded with women in chevron-print tunics and men in gingham button-downs, the place a riot of patterns and bold hues. It’s as if the spirit of Lilly Pulitzer is beaming down upon us. Everyone is relaxed; nobody wants anything too heavy or elaborate, just an easy meal and a glass of wine and a convivial spot to socialize.
Juniper is just right for that. Middle Eastern flavors are gaining cachet on restaurant menus; sumac and tahini and octopus are creeping into dishes the way basil and balsamic and calamari once did. (Americans’ love affair with Italy is bound together with our appetite for the country’s food, and we’ve learned about its regions through eating pizza Napoletana and pesto alla Genovese. Wouldn’t it be fine if consuming fare inspired by the Middle East familiarized us with the area in a more real and concrete way, helped us approach it with more love and less fear?)
Becker is a generous spirit and also a shrewd maestro; both are genuine, so it doesn’t feel forced when he jumps on a culinary bandwagon. A meal at Juniper might begin with pita and dips — beet hummus, almond skordalia, smoky baba ghanoush, all perfectly pleasant with a blend of viognier, sauvignon blanc, and Semillon from the Golan Heights, a Macedonian xinomavro, or a glass of the not-too-sweet Riesling general manager and wine guy Matt Kaplan is excited to have guests try. He’s put real thought into this list, and it’s heartwarming: A pox upon the dull wine list so many restaurants default to, as if customers didn’t care (they do) and wine weren’t as good an opportunity as any to get clientele excited about, and thus invested in, a new venture.
That goes for beer, too, of course, and the bartenders here revel in steering patrons toward one of the local brews on offer, giving tastes and advice. The cocktail list is fun, too, with drinks like the festive Pink Noise — quinoa vodka, grapefruit liquor, pink peppercorns, and bubbles. (No, you can’t taste the quinoa.)
Executive chef Tim Fichera comes over from Sweet Basil. He puts together an appealing roster of mezze. Juniper’s charred octopus appetizer is one of the best in a region currently inundated by charred octopus appetizers. Smoky tendrils are slowly cooked in olive oil, achieving maximum tenderness; they are served with crisp, floral apple-jicama slaw in a bit of warming, spicy broth, lick-the-bowl good. The flavors are wonderful and beautifully balanced. If seared manchego cheese lacks visual appeal, the halloumi-esque preparation makes up for it with strawberry relish, wilted greens, and pomegranate molasses, tart and rich and fun to eat. And a salad of watermelon and tomato is plenty pretty, yellow wedges alternating with juicy red rounds, accessorized with green goddess dressing and crushed pistachios.
Not every appetizer sings. Melon-mint gazpacho is refreshing but needs more acid and salt to get one’s attention. Fried oysters with Moroccan spices, radish remoulade, and harissa aioli are plainer and tamer than they sound. Quinoa falafel are tasty yet somehow too crisp, the exteriors nubby and harsh; the spheres pair well with farro-spiked tabbouleh and spicy tahini aioli.
And Juniper is one of those restaurants where the small plates outshine the large ones. There are standouts among the main courses. Lamb bolognese has deep flavor, accented by chili oil, mint, and Greek yogurt, spilling over wide ribbons of saffron-tinted pappardelle. (The lamb burger on the bar menu is also great, served on a house-made English muffin with fat, creamy-at-the-center chickpea fries.) A meatless ragu showcases grilled summer vegetables and dense, silky pearls of house-made Israeli couscous, with golden raisins offering contrasting sweetness.
But seafood couscous is disappointing and bland, despite the inclusion of lamb merguez alongside mussels, octopus, and swordfish, much of it overcooked. The lentils are the most interesting part of a chicken dish with Moroccan carrot salad and pecan romesco sauce. Grilled skirt steak is served with a zucchini latke, roasted tomato, and whipped feta yogurt, but the meat needs to be as juicy and charred as the steaks we’ve been grilling all summer, and it’s not.
For dessert, go for phyllo. Baklava made with pecan pie filling tastes like standard baklava, which is to say very good. And the milfai features crisp leaves of dough layered with chocolate mousse and strawberries. Other offerings — rice pudding, semolina cake — are less satisfying.
In a landscape with more competition, Juniper might not stand out the way it does here. But here it is. Juniper is the kind of restaurant everyone would welcome having close to home.
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Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.