- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.Juniper, the revamped, upscale new restaurant in the Washington Fairmont, takes the place of the popular Bistro, known in the neighborhood as a comfortable drop-in spot where the food was good and the atmosphere pleasant.

It was just right for a spur-of-the-moment steak sandwich and a salad or heartier fare. When the Fairmont chain took over the hotel, the steak sandwiches (with or without bread) and salad were the first to go.

Juniper aims at sophistication and elegance. It is a cool setting in muted tones of beige. White tablecloths, comfortable upholstered chairs, a candle lighting up an opaque glass ball etched with the capital’s historic buildings on each table, as well as a miniature deep-green juniper treelet, suggest calm and relaxation. Attentive, courteous staff complete the picture. The room is formal and anonymous.

If Juniper wants to play in Washington’s big league, as prices suggest it does, there’s still a way to go.

The kitchen is under the supervision of executive chef Daryle Nagata who offers a well-balanced menu with numerous Asian highlights.

Dinner begins with a basket of assorted breads and two butters unsalted and garlic-flavored, and an amuse bouche from the kitchen, a tiny slice of seared tuna on a minuscule bed of seaweed. So far so good.

The list of starters includes a dish intriguingly called a BLT. It turns out to be an oyster beignet, a small lobster claw and a little mound of tuna tartare. The lobster and tuna both were very good, the latter delicately seasoned and the lobster tasty in a light sauce. The oyster, unfortunately, was lukewarm instead of piping hot, as a beignet should be, and which would have added a nice contrast to the cold tuna and lobster. It also would have benefited from a paper towel to absorb the grease in which it had been cooked.

Mini Delmarva crab cakes are truly mini. The two little rounds are good, albeit slightly mushy; they are well seasoned and served with a nice mustardy sauce on a bed of greens.

Other appetizers include a Peking duck roll with Asian salad green, mushroom strudel with creamed leaks and roasted peppers, beef carpaccio and a seafood tower for two. The only soup is Chesapeake she-crab.

Main courses are a nice mix of fish and meat with red snapper, sea bass, catfish, lobster and salmon as well as chicken, lamb and beef and a pork chop on the menu.

There is also a seasonal feature. For fall 2004, the seasonal dishes are roasted Amish chicken with tomato-basil fettuccine and wild mushroom cream sauce, and lamb chops Provencal with orzo risotto and grilled vegetables. The seasonal dessert is a ginger creme caramel with stewed fruit chutney.

The seasonal lamb chops, two double chops of excellent, tender lamb, are fine, cooked as ordered. They were served atop the orzo, which in turn rested on a bed of spinach. No grilled vegetables in sight, and the thyme jus had been absorbed by the spinach and pasta. The creamy orzo is a nice accompaniment to the lamb, as is the spinach, except that putting them one on top of the other creates a mushy mix which enhances neither. (Mushing food together is a chef’s conceit well past its prime.) Orzo isn’t rice, so calling it a risotto is somewhat confusing.

The regular menu has another lamb dish to offer, a roast loin served with corn johnnycakes and a mustard merlot sauce.

The breast of chicken in a pastry lattice with basil pesto and grilled vegetables sounded tempting. Again, there were no grilled vegetables to be seen or tasted. Instead, the same spinach as that under the lamb chops accompanied the rather dry chicken breast. Nor was there more than a hint of basil pesto.

Beef comes in the form of a barbecued hanger steak and a rib-eye tournedos served with Hudson Valley foie gras. Red snapper is served with asparagus cream; Carolina sea bass is accompanied by a spinach risotto, and the pan-fried catfish comes with sides of collard greens, creamed corn and sweet potato mash.

Side dishes, at $5 each (at both lunch and dinner), include macaroni and cheese, fried Idaho potatoes, asparagus, and a potato flan with Gruyere cheese, cream and garlic.

Desserts, aside from the seasonal offering, consist of miniatures, priced at $2 each. Unfortunately, they sit prettily on the sideboard. “Unfortunately” because it appears they are out there all day so that by dinner time, they are tired and on the stale side. We tried two, a chocolate fondant cake with raspberry marmalade and a shoofly huckleberry and plum tart.

The tiny cake had a good strong chocolate flavor but had started to dry out; the raspberry marmalade couldn’t save it. The tiny pie was beyond redemption. The other miniatures include a marble chocolate cheesecake, a caramel apple pyramid, pumpkin tart and peanut brittle.

The wine list is a good one, with many California vineyards represented, but it tends to be on the expensive side. There are, however, a number of reasonably priced wines by the glass.

At lunch, many of the same dishes are available in the appetizer and entree categories. In addition, there are several substantial salads: fresh tuna nicoise; Shanghai noodle salad with sauteed tenderloin tips; Caesar salad with chicken or shrimp, and a Cobb salad. Sandwich offerings are beef burgers and a seafood club of lobster, tuna and shrimp.

At lunch the seasonal features are vegetable cannelloni and Asian chicken stir fry. Sides and desserts are the same as in the evening.

RESTAURANT: Juniper, 2401 M St. NW; 202/457-5020

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and until 2 p.m. Sunday; dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily; light menu available between lunch or brunch and dinner daily

PRICES: Starters, $8 to $14 (lunch), $9 to $30 (dinner); salads and sandwiches, $15 to $24; entrees, $15 to $27 (lunch), $22 to $38 (dinner); seasonal dessert, $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Foggy Bottom

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