Goodbye, Old World

Juniper sheds its French identity for something suspiciously American

As I write this, it's been just a week since Andre Soltner retired.
Now that's hardly big news to the general population (raise your hand if you know who he is), but to folks in the slice of the pie chart that makes food and wine its business, this is big news.

Andre Soltner was the chef-owner of Lutece, and Lutece, in New York City, was one of this country's great restaurants. It may still be, but with Soltner gone, who knows?

Lutece was sold many months ago to restaurateur Michael Weinstein (need I say, not a chef but a businessman who also owns such mega theme restaurants as America). Weinstein has a new chef in place at Lutece, and the restaurant will go on, certainly.

The menu will change, perhaps gradually, and you can bet we're going to be seeing Lutece T-shirts and gimme caps and maybe bumper stickers ("Lutece Lives!"), but there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the restaurant will never really be the same.

Except when the restaurant closed for the traditional summer holiday, Madame Soltner greeted guests and ran "the front" of Lutece every night; Chef Soltner was in the kitchen, frequently emerging to tell guests to "forget the menu," he'd just cook them something special. Without Soltner, Lutece may live, but it will definitely be a different thing.

The point is as plain as the food on your plate: the chef shapes the restaurant.

It follows that with founding chef Christian Gerber outta there, and Russell Hodges in the kitchen, Juniper is not the same restaurant it was with Gerber manning the pots and pans.

In the three and a half years since its opening, Juniper had become a unique part of the Dallas restaurant landscape. Namely, it was Dallas' last bastion of French cuisine.

Once the top of the gastronomic food pyramid, French food has been almost completely ousted by "New American" and "Mediterranean" cooking. There are almost no French chefs, and there are hardly any fine French restaurants left in Dallas. Now you can scratch one more off the list.

Juniper liked to call its cuisine French Provencal, to correctly distinguish itself from the old butter 'n' cream concepts of French haute cuisine (and to attract at least some of that Mediterranean market), but everything had a distinctly Gallic polish and flair. Gerber is an old-fashioned European chef, trained since youth in the Old World apprentice system, uncompromising, probably viewed as a tyrant in the kitchen. (He may not do it, but I can picture him throwing pots and pans.)

His successor, Russell Hodges, is as American as apple pie and surfer music--in fact, he was originally interested in music, not cooking. (He may not do it, but I can picture him playing an air guitar.)

He's also a genial guy, with a great list of restaurants on his resume.
Hodges doesn't claim to be--and doesn't seem to be--as good with Euro-food as he is with American fare. His previous experience, as far as I know, has been entirely with American restaurants. He apprenticed in Dallas through El Centro, he worked at Routh Street Cafe in its glory days, he was chef at Beau Nash, he was one of the principals of J. Pinnell's.

Obviously, Hodge's Juniper is going to be very different from Gerber's; right now, it's hard to say how Juniper will label its new cuisine.

In America, dining is becoming an event, a theme park with souvenirs, product lines, coffee mugs, loud music, video monitors, and decor to rival Disney. Weinstein's America, for instance, has the cultural diversity of the country spread out in big murals all over the walls, summed up in regional cliches on the menu and cute slogans on T-shirts. Like so many new restaurants, it's huge and loud; it's about volume and energy. The new concept restaurants skip over intimacy and go for celebrity.

Juniper is about something much more subtle than that--unobtrusive excellence, quiet pleasures, the apex of civilized dining, the sum of simple perfections. A serene room, a fine wine, good, freshly prepared food, smoothly efficient service.

Christian Gerber and owner Nancy Foree created a place where one could dine in the most old-fashioned, essentially human manner. You could count on good food, enough calm to talk amidst, effortless service, and pleasant, rather than stimulating, surroundings. They sound like lukewarm words, but the point is, a restaurant such as this leaves the spotlight vacant for the guests and the chef.

I'm sure Hodges and Foree have every intention of leaving that part of Juniper in place, but it's tough to change formats in midstream. My impression is that Juniper is still adjusting to the change, yet this is the kind of restaurant where even small mistakes show up because there is no razzle-dazzle to distract the diner. Any imperfection is a glaring one.

The weeknight we visited Juniper, we were anticipating a wonderful meal. I've eaten everywhere Hodges has cooked in Dallas, and I'd had especially good food at J. Pinnell's, so I had some taste memories to live up to. But we finished dinner with a let-down feeling--neither the food nor the service was as wonderful as we'd expected, or as good as it should have been. (Of course, the latter is much more irritating and unforgivable than the former. You can't fix poor service. You can always send a dish back to the kitchen to be cooked a little more, but once you've drunk half your wine before the entree finally arrives, it's gone for good. No point in hurrying when you've missed the bus.)

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