Located in what used to be a hardware store and outfitted with vintage chrome-banded kitchenette tables across creaky wooden floors, Juniper is an unlikely setting for elegant cuisine. But ease a knife down through a quail breast medallion, fork up a shred or two of flash-fried chiffonade of collards, and it’s apparent that you are in a restaurant that answers to a higher calling.
Chef Brandon Velie, who opened the place along with his wife, Jeanne Velie, in 2005, makes a point of using local ingredients (the quail and collards come from nearby) to create worldly meals. Beef is secured at Yon Family Farm, less than a mile away; tomatoes, squash, corn, peaches, and berries all are from area growers. For all the localism, there is nothing provincial about Juniper’s bill of fare. One day at Sunday brunch, I tucked into authentic cassoulet made with duck confit (the ducks are South Carolinians) followed by heavenly Italian cream cake for dessert.
Much of the food served is classic Southern, but classic at its pinnacle. Grits, for example. While you find bland side-dish grits all over Dixie, South Carolina cooks tend to make them something special. Shrimp and grits, which really ought to be the state dish, is good evidence of how significant this grain can be when cooked right, as it is at Juniper. Adluh grits, a brand that has been stone-ground in Columbia since 1900, are the basis of a splendid shrimp and grits bowl, which also includes a spill of whatever local vegetables are fresh at the moment: sweet corn kernels, butter beans, squash. The grits are so delicious – so earthy, so deeply flavored – that I asked what seasonings or techniques are used to make them. “None,” came the reply from the kitchen. Starting with good grits – and these are some of the best – the only secret is to cook them a long, long time (with lots and lots of cream and butter, of course). “Slow cooking brings out the starch and all its creaminess,” I was told. Amen to that! Shrimp and grits is an every-Friday lunch special.
A few other need-to-know dishes are meat loaf every Monday and herb-crusted chicken on Tuesday, macaroni and (pimento) cheese, and fried chicken on a sweet potato waffle. At dinner, when bananas foster is available for dessert, it’s a must. So is caramel cake.
Just because I have used the words elegant and worldly to describe the food at Juniper, do not think it is hifalutin. Yes, there is a real chef in the kitchen, no doubt about that; but the experience of coming here is an easy-going one, especially at lunch, when an inviting sandwich menu can get you well fed for under $10. (Dinner, served Thursday through Saturday, is at least twice that, not including wine; and the tables are covered with cloths.) The staff is casual-hospitable, the room tone is that of a town café. Expect to see some dressy folks at dinner and after church at Sunday brunch, but for most of us devotees, it’s come-as-you-are.