Last week, I wrote about my experiences eating Adam Starowicz’s food at North River (166 First Avenue, 212-228-1200), a modish East Village restaurant that takes its name from a Dutch colloquialism for the Hudson River. Dishes like thin, juicy pork chops over bok choy and crawfish sitting in crustacean butter are quirky and engaging, but they don’t have much at all to do with our beloved, if polluted, body of water. Frankly, they don’t even need to, but all that river talk got me thinking about a restaurant in my hometown of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
Tucked along the village’s main stretch in a former ice cream parlor, tiny Juniper radiates with warmth from an equally diminutive open kitchen. In the four years since setting up shop along Warbuton Avenue, chef Alex Sze has ceaselessly tweaked the way his restaurant operates, and he continues to evolve along with his food. Nearly everything is made in-house, and local purveyors are painstakingly sourced. Half-portion entrees were recently introduced, perhaps in an effort to appease the small plates crowd. Acquiring a liquor license in Westchester County also comes with its own difficulties. At the moment, what’s thwarting Juniper’s aspirations for a license is the lack of a second bathroom. For now, it’s blessedly BYOB (the restaurant, not the bathroom). I’ll preface the rest of this post by mentioning that my parents have become regulars.
Sze and his cooks do their work in near silence from their corner perch, leaving the front of the house to Marvin Ortiz, who oversees a small staff of friendly servers. Bread is available upon request — big slices of rustic country loaf scorched with grill marks and served with fruity olive oil. In its own sleepy way, Juniper nails the conceit of serving serious food in a laidback setting, and it does so earnestly. A recent dinner proved wholly engaging.
You can have a proper three-course meal if you wish (I still do), or utilize those half-portion entrees. It being springtime, ramps were sprouting up all over the menu on my visit: pickled and paired with duck breast ($16/$29), grilled alongside hanger steak ($18/$29), and fashioned into a pesto for thick ribbons of tagliatelle pasta ($17/$24).`
Sze learned how to cook at Michel Richard’s Citronelle in Washington, working his way up through various stations before heading to New York to help open 10 Downing Food and Wine with Jason Neroni. His fine dining experience is more than apparent in dishes like a special of country-style rabbit and silky foie gras terrines ($15) garnished with sweet, syrupy rhubarb. Try them separately, then together, all spread onto more of that grilled bread.
Last year’s it vegetable, roasted carrots ($12) sat atop a swirl of almond butter, the nutty spread supporting arugula, pickled raisins, and a crunchy goat cheese crostini. Rabbit also appeared in a gnocchi dish mixed with asparagus, mushrooms, and confit tomatoes. A slightly refocused take on a classic combination, the day’s fish preparation was seared salmon with roasted potatoes, asparagus, and bacon, ladled with silky hollandaise. Sze also grills a first-rate gruyere-topped burger.
Desserts change frequently along with the rest of the menu, and that night there was chocolate cake with black tea ice cream, rhubarb apple tarts with dangerously flaky crusts, and a gut-punching bread pudding layered with caramelized bananas, toasted almonds, and hot fudge.
Accessible via Metro North Railroad or the Saw Mill River Parkway, the village has an artsier vibe than its neighboring river towns, which fits well with what Sze and his team are trying to accomplish. Yes, technically this is still suburbia, but rare is the restaurant serving contemporary food on a street this quaint. It can’t help but add to the charm.