Carmel’s Juniper on Main serves up low-country cuisine and Southern charm
By Julia Spalding | Indianapolis Monthly
The wood-paneled floor creaks and sags as you walk across the dining room of 2-month-old Juniper on Main, a quirky reminder that you are not in new Carmel anymore. The refurbished 98-seater (46 inside and 52 outside) sits in the shadow of the Carmel Arts & Design District’s neo-quaint storefronts, at the point on the town map where the monolithic new construction gives way to human-scale businesses like pizza shops and law offices, along with modest homes built long before the renaissance that ushered in the Indiana Design Center, Carmel City Center, and the Center for the Performing Arts.
This is where Juniper on Main set up shop inside a 1907 (or thereabouts) white bungalow owned by the same family for four decades. After co-owners Kevin Keltner and Diane Cannon decided to turn his parents’ property into a restaurant with a focus on Southern coastal cuisine, they spent two years getting it into grand-opening condition. They tore down interior walls (the home was most recently used as divided office space), pulled up layers of linoleum, and added a restaurant-grade kitchen onto the back of the house. A brand-new wooden pergola spans the entire front lawn, providing a sweet al fresco setting on warm summer evenings. It’s almost too delightful to bear, with the twinkle lights and white sunbrellas—and the hot-air balloon that drifted over the Juniper on Main airspace one evening, right on cue as the sun dipped into the horizon. A Warner Brothers set designer would consider that last detail a little too on-the-nose. But the husband-and-wife restaurateurs who planted juniper trees on the edge of the lawn and literally wrapped their new venture in a white picket fence had a very specific aesthetic in mind.
Both Carmel natives, Keltner and Cannon wanted to recreate, in food and mood, the other town they had briefly called home: Savannah, Georgia. Eccentric, enchanting Savannah—with its historic riverfront, jaw-dropping mansions packed so dense, and 22 public squares draped in Spanish moss—is also home to lush, rib-sticking low-country cuisine. It’s where the couple met their chef, Christine Daniel, a fellow Hoosier who ran a restaurant with her then-husband on Savannah’s Wilmington Island, basically a little garden shed surrounded by twinkling lights and a big oak tree dripping with moss. “It was just gorgeous outdoor dining with a screened porch, very open-air and rustic. And the food was so high-end and beautiful,” Cannon recalls.
Eventually, the three of them ended up back in Indiana. Keltner and Cannon decided to open a restaurant of their own, and they knew who to bring onboard to run the kitchen. “We all stood on the front porch and looked around,” says Cannon. They envisioned a pergola with twinkle lights and a row of juniper trees. “We told Christie that we basically wanted to transplant her restaurant from the island to the Main Street of Carmel. We knew exactly what we wanted it to be from day one.”
Specializing in the traditional dishes of South Carolina and Georgia, the kitchen leans hard on stocks, creams, and big flavors. A Porch Platter of crackers and cheese with bacon jam, pickled veggies, and pimento dip headlines an appetizer list that includes black-eyed pea fritters and crab cakes with preserved-lemon aioli and citrus vinaigrette. A flight of creamy deviled eggs, each one topped with a different nubbin of garnish, feels somehow elegant in its white-plate presentation. I do declare.
Daniels’ menu is not for the faint of heart or small of appetite. The servings come out large and oblivious of the their most flattering angles: a sweet tea–glazed chicken breast over Brussels sprouts cooked with cherries and pecans; a lump of ketchup-crusted meatloaf with red-skin mashed potatoes and a soggy hedgerow of sautéed greens; and macaroni and cheese topped with pulled pork, homemade barbecue sauce, and coleslaw that isn’t here to make you a star of Instagram.
Specializing in the traditional dishes of South Carolina and Georgia, the kitchen leans hard on stocks, creams, and big flavors.
The cornbread isn’t cute, either, just a plate of hacked-off cubes sitting in their own crumbs. There is sautéed okra and lots of it. Both are cooked to inauspicious perfection, so that’s your loss if you are one to judge food by its looks.
The fried catfish wears such a thick crust of seasoned flour and pecans that it looks cartoonishly like a catfish sarcophagus, and the stout-braised short ribs practically melt in on themselves, so luxuriously tender and fatty—slow-cooked for hours. But the chef’s most decadent work is her crab stew, a little-known Savannah specialty made with lump crab and claw meat, stock, heavy cream, and “an insane amount of sherry,” says Daniel. When it arrives at the table, it might make you think of wallpaper paste or the glop that orphans are served in old movies. Stop looking at it. Eat it. Because crab stew is outrageously delicious, like a deeply fragrant seafood gravy with hints of melted leeks and pockets of sweet, delicate meat. It’s smooth and comforting, best when spooned up just a few degrees off piping hot. Daniel makes hers dense and uncomplicated. Some people add celery, but she doesn’t. And she stresses the difference between crab stew and its daintier cousin, she-crab soup. “Charleston does she-crab soup,” Daniel says. “Savannah does crab stew.”
The Geechie Boy yellow grits that form the base of several dishes on the menu began as heirloom corn processed in antique gristmills on Edisto Island, South Carolina. That sounds like such a Portlandia-n detail—like knowing your free-range chicken dinner by name—but that method creates a specific grade of coarse-ground grits that Southern cooks swear by, thicker and more absorbent than the thinner, looser variety. Daniel scoops the stone-ground gold onto the plate with some of the heavier meats, the pork loin and short ribs, to soak up the juices.
Of course, Juniper on Main serves shrimp and grits, the marquee low-country entrée that the rest of the cooking world has hijacked and given its own interpretation. This restaurant tries to set the record straight with two vastly different authentic versions: a charred tomato–based Savannah-style presentation swimming in Madeira-spiked redeye gravy with caramelized onions and peppers; and the softer Charleston style that adds chunks of smoked sausage to the onions and peppers and gets covered in cream gravy. They thought it would be fun to offer dueling shrimp and grits from the two Southern micro-regions and that maybe they could keep track of which recipe proved more popular among customers. But so far, the two have sold neck and neck. “People seem to like them equally,” Cannon says.
Midwestern customers have no shrimp in this fight, but Juniper on Main is careful to preserve the regional flavors embedded in the memories of its founders. It’s a fitting tribute to Savannah, a city happily stuck in time as it embraces and protects its weird history, which is an odd concept to understand, especially in a place like Carmel.