4000 Washington Road, McMurray 724-260-7999
HOURS: Mon.-Thu.11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, salads, sandwiches and sides $4-13; entrees $12-25
How far is California? It depends. The state itself is about 3,000 miles away -- but cuisine-wise, it's just about 18 miles down Route 19.
Juniper Grill -- a sister restaurant to the local Atria's chain -- is located in a suburban strip mall in Peters Township. But you'll find it lightly seared in a chipotle-glazed California state of mind. From the contemporary design of its interior -- more high-end than most strip-mall venues, with details such as a panel of cut logs that appeared to be either stacked for burning or arrayed as art -- to its menu's conspicuous Asian and Mexican influences, Juniper Grill cultivates an ambience of artfully casual insouciance that is very West Coast. Although it was snowing rather forcefully the night we were there, we found it easy to indulge in candle-lit fantasies of a place where everything is coming up fresh avocados.
After being seated by one of a bevy of friendly and professional servers, we studied the menu in detail. It was the perfect length to provide variety, even to force us to make hard choices, without trying to be everything to every diner.
The food wasn't exactly "slow food." Nor did the recipes, with their emphasis on summer produce including tomatoes, mangos and avocados, emphasize local ingredients. But the preparations were appealingly straightforward, neither plain nor fussy.
For example, pork loin "from the rotisserie" was offered in a bourbon glaze that added just a hint of sweetness -- not the puddle of syrup that bourbon, outside of a rocks glass, usually implies. Meanwhile, the cornbread stuffing and Yukon gold mashed potatoes were homey without being dull: The potatoes were perfectly seasoned and slightly chunky, the stuffing moist, light and flavorful. Oddly, the "loin" itself consisted of two grilled chops, but the point is this: It's easy to see why such food would draw a crowd.
Before we got to the pork, spicy shrimp flatbread set the tone for a meal filled with lively flavors and satisfying textures. Thin and crisp as a cracker, Juniper's flatbread seemed so light it shouldn't have been able to support a morsel of cheese. Yet the little triangles bravely resisted structural collapse and sogginess-- even when loaded with succulent shrimp, roasted red and poblano peppers, bits of pineapple and a molten coating of Monterey jack,. The toppings played nicely together, although occasional bites included bursts of spice that were more than the wafer-like crust could buffer.
Rotisserie-roasted chicken salad was loaded with ingredients, including corn (with grill marks, a nostalgic, flavorful reminder of summer), grape tomatoes, avocado, goat cheese, almonds and dates. The latter were cut small and provided appropriate bursts of sweetness against the savory chicken and lush avocado. The creamy bacon dressing was light and a touch too sweet, given the presence of the dates. Nonetheless, this salad was a good starter to share and would make a substantial, well-rounded meal in itself.
After this promising start, Angelique was a touch disappointed in pork tortas, the classic sandwich of Mexico. In an update of tortas' distinctive traditional bun -- which looks as if a row of hot dog buns were left connected and sliced in half to form a square -- Juniper used what appeared to be an actual hot dog bun. If so, it was a good, substantial one, with enough crust to stand up to pulled pork (which actually appeared to be in cubes, like carnitas), onions and guacamole. Unfortunately, those good ingredients failed to meld successfully. Possibly that's because the pork was a touch dry, or because the puddle of sopita -- a spicy tomato sauce -- on which the tortas were served, upended like the monolith from 2001, needed to be on the sandwich, not merely near it.
Mexican flavors also made a cameo appearance in skirt steak (a cut that is more popular south of the border), with a judicious drizzle of creamy chipotle sauce along the top. Chipotle may be a bit overplayed at this point, but we don't mind because, frankly, it's delicious and versatile. In this case, it added just a hint of spice and smoke to a beautifully grilled steak, allowing the meat's fundamental beefiness to shine while taking it a step beyond the backyard grill.
We also tried the California burger, a modern classic updated with "spicy sauce." We can't tell you exactly what the sauce was like -- hidden as it was among guacamole, cheese and bacon -- but whatever it was, it succeeded tastily as a foil to the mild richness of the avocado. The patty itself was straightforward, big but not a jawbreaker, and adequate to its task. The same could be said of the side of hand-cut fries, whose interior softness slightly outweighed their exterior crispness.
Juniper Grill offered a fresh, salutary dining experience that was well crafted without betraying calculation. Citizens of Western Pennsylvania, rejoice: You're closer to California than you think.