Locavore is a dud of a word. It tumbles awkwardly off the tongue, has been sorely misused and evokes images of flat-footed hobbits trolling from farmers market to fish wharf, swinging wicker baskets.
Cascadia, on the other hand, is a beautiful noun worth rooting for. If locavores are lumpen cave dwellers, Cascadians are tall, graceful elves foraging by moonlight in the misty rain forests, arid deserts and rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest.
So when Juniper Kitchen + Bar came along calling itself a regional restaurant "committed to showcasing the best of Cascadia," I was immediately captivated.
The only problem with defining a restaurant by a vast bioregion encompassing all territories east of the Continental Divide, from the Alaskan Panhandle to Northern California, is that the mission statement can easily slip out of focus, becoming a meaningless catchall for everything under the sun and nothing in particular.
Such is the case with Juniper. Let us count its muddled ways.
1. The design is dark, yet light with many grey spaces in between.
Nestled at the base of a new development in the heart of Chinatown, Juniper is a clean and modern (some might say cold and sterile) amalgam of small cubbyholes decked in black metal, blond wood, concrete and brass. The alcoves on either side of the central bar are bright and airy. And there is some lovely art sprinkled throughout, including a First Nations-inspired mural by Ola Volo.
But you might want to avoid the dark, low-ceilinged upper-level dining room, often filled by stagettes and loud parties on weekends. Or at least that is what one hostess advised. "It feels kind of lonely when it's empty," she said, steering us instead to the bar.
2. The bar is spirit-forward, yet wine-deprived.
Skillfully managed by star bartender Shaun Layton (formerly of L'Abattoir), the striking backlit bar is the heart of this "spirit-forward" restaurant. Befitting Juniper's botanically derived name, the cocktail menu has a strong emphasis on gin and artisan tonic. The list of G&Ts is long and diverse. They come smoked with rosemary and garnished with big branches of thyme, shaken into frothy egg-white sours, and infused with cucumber in tall glasses of pebbled ice.
Mr. Layton is one of the few bartenders in the city using such a large selection of B.C. craft spirits. But he is also attuned to broader trends. Don't laugh at his Pina Faux-lada with coconut rum, local amaretto and "blue stuff." This retro-eighties reinvention doesn't just taste creamy and delicious – it's the next big thing in cocktail culture.
Cascadia is, of course, a bigger producer of wine than spirits. But you would never guess that by Juniper's wine offerings. The list is short (about 12 labels by the bottle) and relatively expensive (starting at $60, with some steep markups). There may be some boutique gems available, but less than half of an already paltry selection is from Cascadia; most are from Europe.
3. The food is Cascadian – as interpreted by the Ukrainian Cultural Centre of Saskatoon.
By all means, go for the fish and meat charcuterie boards. Juniper boasts its own in-house butcher, Johnny Turions, who is responsible for making the creamy duck pâtés, chunky pork terrines, potted octopus and smoked char. Priced at $21 and served with crackers, pickles, sourdough bread and wholesome spreads, the boards are good value and great for sharing.
The composed plates are less on point. Executive chef Sarah Stewart hails from Ontario, where she cooked for a canoe-tripping camp and Frank Restaurant at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Although technically sound and generally pleasing, her rustic dishes are more broadly Canadian than Cascadian. Lamb-stuffed perogies and lentil-filled cabbage rolls are fine, upstanding prairie fare. Deconstructed tourtière and chômeur pudding are nice nods to rural Quebec. None of it really speaks to the Pacific Northwest.
Sure, Ms. Stewart sprinkles her well-balanced dishes with locally sourced texture and colour: vibrant microgreens and sprouts on a flavoursomely charred Fraser Valley pork chop; freshly foraged fire morels on a nicely tenderized, caramelized-crusted flank steak. But so do many other restaurants in town.
Ms. Stewart's food is almost too Canadian – polite, inoffensive, lacking in ego or wow. The one dish with which she does step out – smoked duck wings and spicy red cabbage – is a burning hot, honey-sauce-sticky, hard-to-handle mess.
You do have to wonder, however, how much of the menu is orchestrated from above. To make things even more confusing, the restaurant recently added three new menus to the summer mix: happy hour, three-course prix fixe from 5 to 6 p.m., and late-night lounge. That sounds like the owners are throwing kerosene on the campfire to keep it burning.
4. Service comes with a smile between gritted teeth.
Good managers and owners don't let servers fail. They don't put people on the floor – with huge sections all to themselves – who barely know the menu. They don't let the Sunday-night bartender condescend to said hapless new server with icy glares over the table. They don't let cooks come out huffing and puffing when the food running falls behind. Those things don't help – they only make the customers feel uncomfortable.
There may be several bright shoots sprouting at Juniper. Unfortunately, they've been planted on fault lines that feel as shaky and unpredictable as the Cascadia subduction zone.
Editor's note: A previous version of this review incorrectly said Juniper Kitchen + Bar's wine list was curated by Sarah McCauley. In fact, Ms. McCauley no longer works for the restaurant.