An Exclusive First Look at Dave Becker’s Juniper
Chef Dave Becker, of Needham’s popular Italian bistro Sweet Basil, is trying his hand at the type of Middle Eastern cuisine now skyrocketing in popularity across the country. Juniper, his second restaurant, will open its doors on July 9 in Wellesley and feature a bevy of Mediterranean influences including hand-rolled Moroccan and Israeli couscous, house-made phyllo dough and pita, and Becker’s own baharat and ras el hanout spice blends.
“Eastern Mediterranean is trending in a big way right now, no thanks to Ana Sortun and New York’s Nomad,” Becker says. “It’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, so about a year ago I approached Tim Fichera (Sweet Basil’s executive chef) about the idea and we started running specials to practice using Middle Eastern flavors. We started playing around with sumac, gigante beans, and tzatziki. We even sourced some really good olive oil from Chafic Maalouf, who lives in Sudbury, but whose family owns a plot of olive groves in Lebanon.”
Juniper’s seasonally changing menu will range from dips and spreads such as house-made fava bean hummus to larger entrees like Lamb Agnolotti and Chicken Tagine. Becker’s main focus though is on shareable meze plates like his crispy oysters paired with a harissa aioli.
“I hate being in restaurants where you have to watch your posture,” Becker says. “I’m a big proponent of sharing, since it cuts down on pretense. I like it when people are laughing and chewing with their mouth open.”
Like Sweet Basil, Juniper will have a major focus on sustainability and local sourcing. Becker, a believer in the emerging art-to-table movement, has hand-crafted a portion of Juniper’s turquoise colored serving ware using New England clay and recycled glazes. “These blowhard chefs in Brooklyn can name the fisherman that caught their halibut, but you turn their plate over and it’s made in China. I think that’s definitely a part of the fabric of a restaurant. So, whatever I can’t hand-throw myself, I source from a local potter, Jeremy Ogusky in Needham.”
Nate Babineau, formerly of Leon’s Full Service in Georgia, heads up a bar program that emphasizes house-made cocktail components such as plant-based sweeteners and herb-infused bitters, most of which are sourced from nearby Natick Community Organic Farm. General Manager Matt Kaplan has hand-selected Juniper’s eclectic blend of domestic, European, and Eastern Mediterranean wine. And in a departure from Sweet Basil’s savory-only menu, Becker has hired pastry chef Katie Kitendaugh to concoct globally-inspired sweets like her pecan “pie” baklava.
The 110-seat restaurant, adorned with soft blue, yellow and taupe walls, has pulled its design sensibilities from casual bistros tucked along the Mediterranean Sea. The dining room boasts deep leather booths that sit on a cork floor and lie below the building’s original tin tiled white ceiling. There’s even a 10-seat patio overlooking downtown Central Street.
“I wasn’t actively looking for another restaurant,” Becker say. “A lot of my staff has been with me for a long time, there are people at Sweet Basil I’ve worked off and on with since we were teenagers. When we were first working with each other their money would be going toward take-out Thai food and beers after work. Now they have kids. So I’ve set it up where everyone gets paid vacation and a matched 401K. That’s hard to do with just one really small place. Without expanding and showing room for growth there was a good chance that they’d move on. This is just something I had to do to retain the talented people I work with everyday.”
13 Central St., Wellesley; 781-446-6950