Review: Juniper Grill

Juniper Grill fires up the ‘burbs with its locations in Cranberry and Peters townships.




Photos by Laura Petrilla
 

 

Juniper Grill is on the radar as an emerging suburban hot spot. Having opened its first location in 2011 in Peters Township, the business expanded last spring to Cranberry Township and is aiming to have its Murrysville spot up and running by year’s end.

Business partners Pat McDonnell and Nick Koustis came up with the concept. Joining the Restaurant Holdings CEO and director of concept development, respectively, in this venture are executive chefs Nick Bell (Peters) and Chris Perrin (Cranberry), who have transformed the pair’s ideas into reality.

Restaurant Holdings also owns Atria’s Restaurant and Tavern, which has eight area locations, and is managing partner of the Mike Ditka’s restaurants in Chicago and Robinson Township. Because McDonnell and Koustis each have many years of restaurant experience, they created a specific vision for Juniper.

“We wanted a simpler concept,” says Koustis. “We wanted a smaller restaurant than our previous [endeavors], with a beautiful lodge-like interior where you would walk in and feel you were somewhere else … We also wanted to offer food that you might not make at home.” 



 

The interiors make you feel as if you have escaped the hubbub of the heavily trafficked shopping centers in the surrounding communities. Both places feature dark wood, stacked-stone walls, fireplaces, a large bar and an open kitchen. The space is divided into smaller sections so that diners have an intimate experience no matter where they’re seated.

The extensive bar menu lists several fun features, including the favorite Moscow Mule ($8), served in a chilled copper mug. A selection of margaritas, tequilas and mojitos ($8-$10.50) reflects the cuisine’s Southwestern flair. The wine list spans a range of prices and types, with more than 25 by-the-glass choices.

The food menu is diverse but not too large. “We want to do fewer things well,” says Koustis. “Each item has a very specific preparation to get the best results; for example, our brisket is marinated for 24 hours and then smoked overnight, and our French fries are made from scratch [in] a five-step process.”

I recommend starting with some of the homemade spreads — including the guacamole ($9), with freshly smashed avocado, and the creamy white-bean hummus ($9.50), accented with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes and served with warm pita. 



 

The signature salad is the wood-grilled romaine ($7), comprising whole leaves that are lightly grilled and drizzled with a thick housemade Caesar dressing and topped with housemade cornbread croutons. The house Caesar salad ($5) is much less special. At lunch, you can add your choice of meat — chicken ($4 more), salmon or steak (each $7.50 extra)  — to the wood-grilled romaine to create a satisfying meal.

Juniper’s fish tacos (two for $11; three for $13) are prepared exactly to my liking. Served on white flour tortillas, the generous filets of Cajun-spiced tilapia go well with the “drunken” black beans, rice and a fresh, chunky mango salsa. This must-have dish comes with a side of crisp Southwest cole slaw.

The traditional angus burger ($10) is deeply satisfying and served with all the usual toppings on a perfectly grilled brioche bun. Koustis says the kitchen staff toasts the bun on a special flat-top surface so the bun is dry enough to be paired with the juicy burger meat. The aforementioned hand-cut fries are a tasty accompaniment.



 

The tender slow-roasted boneless short ribs ($19.50) are nicely sauced, accented with a succotash garnish and served with Yukon mashed potatoes or your choice of vegetable. I also enjoyed the chipotle skirt steak ($19.50), a simply prepared generous strip of beef topped with chipotle drizzle; be sure to get it with a side of wood-grilled asparagus ($4).

A disappointing choice is the featured Amish rotisserie chicken ($14) — which oddly was like baked chicken in that it was fatty, and the skin was neither crisp nor dark.

Ask your server about the sustainable fish-of-the-day option; its preparation and price vary based on daily selection.



 

With the exception of the triple chocolate-fudge cake ($7), desserts are made in-house. The three I sampled — key lime pie ($6), traditional crème brûlée ($5) and signature cornbread in a skillet with fresh berry sauce ($6.50) — all are excellent and served with ice cream from Sarris Candies in Canonsburg.

Juniper Grill is satisfying, warm and inviting, and its focus on fresh preparation raises the bar for suburban locales. 



 

Pat McDonnell | CEO and Founder, Restaurant Holdings Inc.
 

You have opened your two existing Juniper sites close to Atria’s, which you also own.  Do you feel like you’re creating your own competition?  
Some people might say we are cannibalizing our own restaurants, but we look at it differently. Because we own those Atria’s, we understand the market there very well, and we understand our customer base.  Juniper is a totally different concept with a different experience. So really, we look at it as giving our customers more choices. 

What trends are you seeing in the restaurant business?  
I definitely see a trend toward healthier eating. Our top-seller is the fish tacos. People love our catch of the day, [along with] food that is cooked on the rotisserie or grilled. I’m also seeing that the big chain restaurants are becoming more and more like each other; they are so focused on offering discounts and Groupons, and their food is becoming more and more unfocused, and the quality is just not there. 

What are the challenges of maintaining consistency between restaurants with identical menus?  
First of all, you have to have good procedures, recipes and ingredients to try to reduce the number of variables and the number of things that can go wrong. Then you need to add talented chefs. The thing about Mother Nature is that she may hand you different kinds of food products, [such as] tomatoes, and you need someone who actually understands how to cook to know how to prepare that product in a way that works. Our chefs do a great job.

You are a managing partner in Mike Ditka’s restaurants here and in Chicago.  How does Pittsburgh compare to Chicago?  
I have always considered Chicago to be like New York and San Francisco in terms of being a breeding ground for chef/owners and food trends. There always is something new in Chicago, and I really enjoy traveling there to eat. Pittsburgh used to be really behind the times, but [in] the last 10 years, we have seen a lot more creativity here.

 

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