Saturday, September 14, 2013


As much as I admired SHO Shaun Hergatt in the Setai Hotel, Juni, Hergatt's latest project, is much more up my alley... as well as being a lot closer to my alley. That puts it, however, on an unlikely stretch of south K-town in the east of a no-man's-land restaurant desert, but not far to the west is Michael White's impeccable Ai Fiori, slightly south Bloomfield's the Breslin and the Dory, then Maysville (despite my abysmal review, appears to be attracting quite an audience), and a host of others.  Thus, chef Hergatt's main obstacle may be to bridge that small stop-gap over Fifth Avenue, because already, in just it's first months of existence, the food itself is almost entirely above reproach.

Juni is billed as a seasonal, vegetable-inspired fine dining, but to me it wasn't so gung-ho
in its vegetable focus as I might have liked.  The dishes are inspired by thoughtfully curated seasonal produce, but they aren't proportionally founded by it.  Of course, most people's idea of plate constitution would coincide seamlessly with his, but I suppose I had a imagined a shift towards a more Michael Pollan-esque, veggie-centric plating strictly from my interpretation of the website's mantra.  Execution, however, was quite succinctly faultless, and the flavors coaxed from flora and fauna alike are nothing less than masterful.  Our waitstaff was almost exclusively Southeast Asian, sometimes requiring a bit of struggle to comprehend past some heavy accents.  But they are attentive and willing, if their graciousness does seem a bit forced: just like Pete Wells at Betony, I'm not sure my purse needed a footstool.

We began with two vegetable-based starters, a corn soup and a garden salad. The cool soup glowed creamy-yellow through a glass bowl, misted with a pulverized freeze-dried egg and a delicate popcorn tuile.  I'm not sure how much it mattered, flavor-wise,  that the egg was from Feather Ridge Farm at this point, as it was separated white from yolk, and desiccated into a fine, pearly dust and a rich eggy crumble.  But it does illustrate their commitment to conscientiously souced ingredients. The Chef's Garden salad was a true showcase of exquisite greens: lovely, tender leaves, translucent discs of radish, and ribbon-thin furls of summer squash hardly needed
 a dressing (although the mustardy daubs and nutty stanchions of almond "sand" complimented their freshness deftly), and added a sunny punch of color  upon bright white porcelain.

I'll admit a tinge of regret for not throwing caution to the wind and ordering the main course offering of arugula-pine nuts-steel cut oats-lovage oil.  For unless it was simply a salad bequeathed with some manifestation of oatmeal, I'm deathly curious to see what this dish might be all about.  However, I wasn't in the mood for a bowl of porridge, nor just another salad, so either option paled in comparison to a crispy skinned branzino.  And when I say crispy, I mean Crispy.   Whether you're supposed to or not, I normally remove the skin from any fish, but these filets were so expertly seared that the crispy edges of skin might have been the best part.  Not to disparage at all the flavorful branzino it was attached to, which came divided into two pieces balanced akimbo upon slender, sweetly steamed carrots.  Flounces of delicate herbs and peppery nasturtium blooms and leaves made the dish look as lovely as it tasted,
 atop a delectably buttery pool of lemon essence and more carrots, this time pureed into thick dollops. Rich pork tenderloin paired with earthy quinoa and an exuberant herb emulsion, deeply vegetal aside two medallions of succulent meat and a brick of salty confit belly.  I'm
not one to normally order pork, but this was an exceptional dish, and the tiny, upturned beech mushrooms, mild cippoline onions and sprigs of dandelion greens and micro-lettuces gave it fresh, summery appeal.

An interesting dessert paired an unlikely trio of grapes, walnuts and mustard, although that latter component was only present as tiny micro-mustards greens, as far as my palate could detect.  Less to impart flavor than for the novelty of a crucifer in a dessert, and continuing the prevalence of produce throughout the menu.  It featured a variety of juicy grapes- some tiny and green as spring, others ebony-black like orbs of onyx, and crunchy red globes full of juice.  Luxurious walnut ice cream compounded the crunchy caramelized nuts hidden throughout, freshened by  a clear, fruity verjus  added
 tableside.  A chocolatey concoction surrounded a scoop of malty, milky ice cream with an artful scaffolding  of spun chocolate, which mirrored the golden filigree decorating the plate.  Fanciful striations of tart plum puree led back to a quenelle of lush sorbet balanced with a diaphanous wafer of crisp pistachio.

All this whimsy, flourish and color is demanded to counter the subdued room, especially as it was relatively unpopulated on my visit.  The color palette is beigey and bland, at least from the vantage point of our table, although livelier paintings are mounted on a far wall, but only visible from a tour around the room.    A somewhat melancholy arrangement of dried magnolia branches would be smartly substituted with a more colorful array, at least until the tables begin to fill themselves with happy diners.  A this point the sparse, minimalist decor seems to be anticipating an influx of guests, as I'm sure is Hergatt himself.  And with food this expertly and thoughtfully prepared, I'm sure they will.

12 E 31st St
Tel: (212) 995-8599

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