Juniper on the Water Is Good, But Not Quite Great

Steamed Middleneck clams
Steamed Middleneck clams
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Name a waterfront restaurant in South Florida where you don't have to fight to get in — or be heard. It's a rare thing indeed these days, especially at the height of season.

Don't worry; if you can't think of any, here is one for you: Juniper on the Water in Hallandale Beach.

Situated between Miami-Dade County's Aventura and Broward County's Fort Lauderdale, for many years, Hallandale Beach has been a place of subpar dining options, with the exception of Gulfstream Park. The beachside section of town, especially its miles' worth of waterside views, was devoid of any real culinary draw.

Recently, that's been changing thanks to several newish establishments, among them Juniper on the Water, aptly named for a lofty, perch-like location offering an elevated view of the Intracoastal Waterway — much like the Juniper trees that grow among the mountainous regions of the Himalayas — from an auxiliary building flanked by the towering columns of the Hemispheres condominium grounds.

Executive Chef Sezer Deniz
Executive Chef Sezer Deniz
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Three years ago, brothers and founders Scott and Chris Swaris were industry veterans looking for a space to launch their own establishment. A New York native, Scott came from a fine-dining background that began in the kitchen at Nobu, later bringing him south to open the restaurant's Shore Club location in Miami Beach. As time went on, he moved to the front of the house and today stands as Juniper's manager.

Chris, Juniper's chef and the creator of much of today's menu, was cooking at Manhattan's Cub Room, an elegant 1990s SoHo hot spot that closed before he too relocated to Miami. For years, both brothers worked their way around the city, hopping from this place to that before deciding maybe it would be better if they just worked for themselves. They found the spot one day when their mother noticed that the building located across the water from her — the space that once housed Joseph's on the Water — was for rent.

"It was exactly the type of location we were looking for, on the water but still close to both Aventura and Fort Lauderdale," says Scott.

Several months into the project, the fraternal duo brought on partner and director of operations Sho Marks, another New York transplant who met Scott and Chris while working at Mercadito in New York's Alphabet City. Together, the trio has transformed the once dark and dismal space just off South Ocean Drive from a dreary Old Florida fixture to a bright and cheery Cape Cod design.

Fried calamari
Fried calamari
Photo by CandaceWest.com

After a nine-month renovation, diners who knew Joseph's formerly pallid space can now appreciate the beauty of the building's natural architecture, from its high, curved-beam ceiling and massive windows to the stately coral rock pillars and a white-washed interior.

An open dining room marries a 15-seat, copper-topped bar at the front with booth and table seating along floor-to-ceiling windows, which offer a direct view of the Hemisphere's pool and patio to the east. Outside, the wide covered terrace allows for alfresco dining no matter what the weather, providing uninterrupted views in both directions.

The only problem about the location is, in fact, the location. Finding Juniper on the first run is a challenge come nightfall. And because it is part of the Hemispheres, you'll also need to pass go at the condo's guest access gate before you can pull around to the valet at the back of the property, your only parking option for dining here.

While the name "Juniper" could suggest a gin cocktail bar, instead you'll find a wine-focused one, rarer picks or highlights scrawled on a chalkboard menu. The spicy berry isn't used on the menu either, which blandly echoes that of every other South Florida seafood restaurant on the water.

Braised lamb shank
Braised lamb shank
Photo by CandaceWest.com

If you had to categorize Juniper as any specific focus, you'd say it was modern American, offerings presented by executive chef Sezer Deniz, an Istanbul native who lends a touch of Mediterranean influence to a somewhat boring list of starters and mains.

It opens with appetizers you'll likely find familiar: a caesar or burrata salad, a Mediterranean dipping platter with hummus and smoked eggplant, and a flatbread. The most successful dishes are seafood-based, and that includes steamed middleneck clams bathed in a sweet onion crema reduction instead of the usual white wine simmer. The bowl is accented with a vibrant parsley — not basil — pesto, which provides a ribbon of color across a heap of shells submerged in the creamy, opaque liquid.

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Likewise, fried calamari — yet another safe go-to — fries up light and crunchy thanks to a cornmeal-crusted batter blended with flour and a touch of cornstarch, the right balance of texture and flavor against gummy rings of calamari. Deniz serves it beneath a bright tomato and poblano pepper pico de gallo and a tart lemon aioli dipping sauce, both helping to pull this basic dish back from the brink of mediocrity.

The main plates, split between land and sea, highlight well-executed dishes like whole-roasted branzino, pan-roasted salmon, or a blackened mahi. A braised lamb shank and whole roasted chicken will make meat eaters happy. There's even a burger served with truffled fries, to please the simpler crowd.

But Juniper's single best dish is its paella, a bounty of fresh fish layered atop a bed of toasted Israeli couscous, Deniz's own personal touch. If you order it, the pan delivered to your table is uniquely complex, its contents still bubbling and crackling from the heat.

Juniper on the Water Is Good, But Not Quite Great (5)
Photo by CandaceWest.com

When the server places it in front of you, he'll do so with a warning of its heat, and when the steam clears, you'll find a heaping pile of food studded with bits of chorizo, green peas, and bell peppers. The seafood — including clams, mussels, shrimp, and two fillets' worth of seared branzino — is smothered in a rich lobster reduction and accented with saffron, bay leaves, and tarragon.

But it's the couscous that gives this main plate its elemental magic, toasted pearls of semolina that soak up the juice and lend a nutty note when compared to the starchy, gummy rice this dish is known for.

"There are so many great spots on the water in South Florida, but the food is always mediocre," says Scott. "We want to be an exception to that rule."

But if Juniper wants to be Hallandale's go-to dining destination, it'll need to do more than hook locals on solid seafood entrées and water views. And thanks to its remote location and unremarkable menu, baiting diners back for a second visit will require more than a really good seafood paella. But all it needs is a little nudge and Juniper might just be the type of place to have you grumbling about the wait for your table in no time.

Juniper on the Water
1975 S. Ocean Drive, Hallandale Beach. Hours are Monday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call 954-544-3370, or visit juniperonthewater.com.

  • Steamed middleneck clams $11
  • Fried calamari $12
  • Seafood paella $32

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