After multiple emails back and forth with the folks at Juniper, we had finally settled on a date when Bryan and I could come and visit this exciting new (opened July 2014) Mediterranean restaurant in Wellesley. It took a bit of coordination, but finally, we settled on December 9th.
Who would have predicted that a crazy, windy, wet, wet, WET Nor'easter would come plummeting into our lovely vulnerable city that very day?
On any normal day, taking the commuter rail out to Wellesley would have been a cinch, considering Juniper is a mere 3-minute walk away from the station. However, on this dark and miserable day, I found myself sloshing through 6-inch deep puddles and battling horizontal rain that left me 100% soaked.
With pants that felt like a wetsuit and water-logged boots that squished and squeaked with each step, I entered Juniper after a harrowing 2-hour commute, feeling like a mess.
What greeted me completely washed away any memory of discomfort I had. The warm space, the friendly host, and the sight of Bryan (who I hadn't seen all day) sitting at the bar, sipping on a drink. The host was not at all phased by my wet appearance, but instead warmly offered to take the coat off my hands.
"My feet are COMPLETELY soaked" I whispered to Bryan as the friendly host took us to our seats.
Thankfully, ever-so-thankfully, our hostess led us to a cozy little booth in the corner. In the intimate, semi-private corner, I was able to get comfortable, dry out my boots a bit, and sit back and relax.
The server immediately brought us some water and a bowl of olives, plus menus. As memories of the rainy commute faded away, my attention quickly focused on the fun menu, which had an assortment of Mediterranean inspired mezzes (starters), dips and hummus, as well as entrees, all for surprisingly reasonable prices.
Before I get too far into describing our meal, here's just a bit of background about Juniper. Juniper is the Mediterranean brainchild of David Becker, the chef-owner of the wildly popular Italian restaurant Sweet Basil in Needham. It's relatively new, having opened in the summer of 2014. It's located right in the heart of Wellesley Square, a 2-3 minute walk from the commuter rail station. There's also plenty of street parking, and Bryan found a spot right in front of the restaurant. The restaurant does not accept reservations except for parties of 7+, though you can always opt for take-out or catering if you don't feel like waiting (apparently it's quite popular and you may have to wait sometimes).
The menu is decidedly Mediterranean, with many classic dishes as well as items that inject a bit of creative Juniper twists. For example, there are a variety of dips & hummus on the menu, which come with pita bread. They are priced $6 each or 3 for $15. It's hard to just get one, so I would definitely ecommend trying three (though portions are generous, so you can always take some home). When we asked the server which ones we should try, she recommended trying at least one of the more unusual, Juniper-created spreads, such as potato + almond, red pepper + pecan, or butternut squash.
We ended up ordering potato + almond, red pepper + pecan, and smoked eggplant. My favorites were the smoked eggplant and the red pepper + pecan, which I found to have wonderfully intense flavors that I just couldn't stop eating! The potato + almond was fine, though it was much denser and richer, so it was harder to eat lots of that particular spread.
They also sent out a bit of the butternut hummus, which was delicious if you like that sweet, creamy, pumpkin-pie like flavor (which Bryan loves!). The server said that was her favorite one.
The menu has a pretty extensive Mezzes section, which includes various types of appetizers priced between $10-$14. The Seared Manchego Cheese ($10) consisted of a generous block of salty Manchego cheese that's been pan-seared until crispy (yet still gooey on the inside), served with greens, pomegranate syrup, pomegranate seeds, crostini, and apple. It reminded me a lot of grilled halloumi, which I love.
One of the most impressive dishes we had was the Charred Octopus Salad ($14). The octopus was beautifully seasoned and nicely charred, yet incredibly soft and tender on the inside. Not since Craigie on Main, who up to this point I thought was the clear leader for best octopus in the city, have I had octopus this good.
This octopus is slow poached for hours in extra virgin olive oil (perhaps not unlike the way I made it when inspired by Craigie years ago), and then seared to order. It's served over a sweet and tart apple-jicama slaw, which nicely balances the smoky, charred umami of the octopus. Crispy quinoa on the sides add a nice bit of crunch. For $14, we both thought this dish was a steal.
I ordered the Quinoa Falafel ($13) because I am a huge fan of falafels and I'm always trying to find the best ones in the city. This particular one came with farro tabouli, greens, and pickled onions. I thought the flavors were relatively authentic, although I personally found the falafels to be a bit on the dry side. The tahini helped a bit, but overall I found it serviceable but not better than the falafels you can get at casual Middle Eastern joints in the city.
The server recommended the Lamb Bolognese ($24) as one of their signature items that's been on the menu since the beginning. This version is made with handmade saffron pappardelle, roasted tomato sauce, and chili oil. Elements that make it more Mediterranean include the dollop of greek yogurt and dried mint sprinkled on top.
The homemade pasta had a wonderful al dente quality, and overall the sauce was very flavorful with a lovely kick from the chili oil. I personally found it borderline too salty, though Bryan (who has a much higher salt tolerance), found it to be absolutely fine.
The Seafood Couscous ($27) reminded me of a Mediterranean version of paella, chock full of mussels, octopus, swordfish, and lamb merguez over Israeli couscous cooked in an aromatic saffron broth. The dish was rich and full of flavor. The seafood was cooked just right, with tender swordfish (a fish that is often overcooked but not here!) and more of that same, velvety soft octopus. The portion size was generous and a good value for the price. We ended up taking it home the next day, and it reheated beautifully (though it was a bit more oily the second day around).
We couldn't help but pick what looked like one of the most interesting desserts, Pecan "Pie" Baklava ($10) made with flaky phyllo dough, pecan pie filling, and topped with cinnamon bourbon ice cream. To me, it tasted very similar to a classic baklava (not a bad thing!), though it was a bit sweet for my tastes. The cinnamon bourbon ice cream offered refreshing balance to the sticky, sweet baklava.
The Chocolate Tahini Tart ($10) came topped with anise whipped cream and served alongside red wine soaked cherries and candied almonds. The tahini (sesame paste) flavor was subtle, and was mixed in with the chocolate. If anything, it tasted like a mild chocolate nut butter pie, but with a much milder flavor.
All in all, both desserts were nice - not particularly extraordinary - but a nice way to end the meal.
The folks in Wellesley must be thrilled to have this kind of restaurant right in their neighborhood, as evidenced by the packed place on the night of a Nor'easter (I kid you not!). The quality of the food is very good, portion sizes are generous, and the prices are very reasonable. Considering how much food we got (3 dips, 3 appetizers, 2 entrees, and 2 desserts), our meal only came out to $123 (not including tax + gratuity) for two people. Most people wouldn't order as much food as we did, so you'd probably get away with spending under $100 for two if you don't drink.
Our favorite dish by far was octopus, though I definitely enjoyed some of the dips and thought that the entrees were perfectly enjoyable. I agree with Bryan when he says, "if this place were close by our house, I would definitely eat there."
I'm not sure if I'd say it's a destination restaurant if you're in Cambridge or Boston (who have their own share of excellent Mediterranean restaurants). However, if you don't feel like dealing with the headache of finding parking or dealing with the traffic in the city, Juniper is really the perfect neighborhood restaurant. The people living in or near Wellesley are very, very fortunate to have such a delightful place so close by.
Disclaimer: this meal (with the exception of gratuity) was paid for by Juniper. All opinions are my own.