Everyone obsesses over the cooking and the vibe and the décor and the service, but restaurant names make and break establishments more often than you might think, and selecting one often involves nervous meetings between restaurateurs and their backers. As managing partner of Civetta Hospitality, James Mallios has participated in his share of these tedious confabs, or "bad meetings," as he calls them, admitting that some are less painful than others.
"Juniper actually grows on the property," he said, referring to The Vanderbilt, a high-end Westbury apartment complex that until last March played host to Tom Schaudel’s Kingfish, one of the pandemic’s early restaurant casualties. Mallios and his team eventually took over the space, and their New American eatery, Juniper, opened May 20.
"It’s also native Long Island flora," he continued, perfect for a restaurant whose menu draws inspiration, along with much of its produce and meats, from local purveyors. And juniper berries are, of course, a key ingredient in gin, on which Juniper’s cocktail program is based. Building a bar around the spirit can be a challenge on an island where vodka and tequila are king, but general manager John Nicoletti likes his chances.
"I always tell people, if you like whiskey, you like gin. You just don’t know it yet," he said. Accordingly, Juniper plans to feature up to 8 gin cocktails at a time — a house barrel-aged negroni among them — using gins from Long Island Spirits (Deepwells) and Montauk Distilling (71st Regiment).
"Also Wolffer Estate," added Mallios, for whom raising the local spirit's profile is something of a pet project. The main one, of course, is turning Juniper into a destination restaurant, no easy task for an eatery without street presence or signage. What it does have is an 1,100-square-foot patio that seats 78 (at full capacity) and abuts the complex’s sparkling swimming pool. That, along with a deejay presence on select evenings and live music during Sunday brunch, seems certain to take Juniper’s outdoor experience up a notch. The 142-seat interior dining and bar areas, meanwhile, were not extensively overhauled, but now evince a bright, monochromatic look with blond wood accents, a few potted juniper trees, and no framed portraits of fish.
Chris D’Ambrosio, the young chef in charge of the menu, is new to Long Island but not to cooking, having worked in kitchens near and far, Bouley among them. In keeping with the Juniper ethos, he plans to draw from local seafood purveyors, including "dayboat stuff out of Montauk," he said, and New Suffolk’s Peeko Oysters. His "lacquered and roasted slowly" duck breast ($35) features birds from Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, while the ones in his fried chicken and waffles entree ($25) hail from upstate’s Cascun Farm.
"America’s a melting pot and that’s how I like to cook," he said, an approach that inspired his short ribs served birria-style ($33), in which chiles and Oaxacan cheese meet braised beef. "It’s a French preparation but with the flavors of Mexico."
"I want people to feel like they’re home when they’re here, while at the same time having an experience that they can’t get anywhere else," Nicoletti said of Juniper’s dual focus on the familiar and the novel, confident that diners will come along for the ride, even if that sometimes means meeting them halfway.
"I know people are going to order a gin cocktail with vodka," he said, shaking his head.
"A small part of me dies when that happens," added Mallios with a laugh.
"But guess what?" said Nicoletti. "For the people who like vodka, we’ve got that too."
Juniper at The Vanderbilt is at 990 Corporate Dr. in Westbury, 212-339-8363, juniperlongisland.com. Opening hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily for dinner; and Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for brunch.