By Pam Starr
Pittsburgh Tribune Review Sunday, May 22, 2011

Nicholas Bell is only 29, but the executive chef of Juniper Grill has been working in the restaurant industry for 16 years.

Starting as a dishwasher at 13 with Salvatore’s Catering in the South Hills, Bell quickly worked his way up to prep cook, then went to culinary school after graduating from Baldwin High School. After stints at Heinz Hall, and then in Las Vegas, Bell returned to Pittsburgh to be around family.

“I always liked to cook, and I enjoyed seeing the enjoyment in everyone’s faces when they ate,” says Bell, who lives in Baldwin. “I have no idea what I’d be doing if I weren’t a chef — I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”

The 150-seat Juniper Grill in McMurray has been open six months, but already has a loyal following. A sister restaurant to Atria’s, the casual yet upscale place features an American menu heavy on Southwestern influences. Business partner Nick Koustis says that while Atria’s is a regional restaurant chain, he and the other partners wanted a “growth vehicle” with no limits.

“We knew someone was going to put a restaurant in this location, and Atria’s is right down the street, so we figured we might as well compete with ourselves,” says Koustis, a Mt. Lebanon resident. “We’ve been very busy since we opened, very well-received. We didn’t experience a honeymoon phase like other new restaurants. We opened big, and we stayed big.”

It’s not difficult to see why Juniper Grill has been jumping since November. The sleek and open design features dark wood tables, ceramic tile, earth-tone walls, an exhibition kitchen and a heated outside patio. The atmosphere is bustling but not frenetic, and the popular bar offers 20 tequilas and many specialty margaritas, mojitos and martinis.

“We turn tables two to two-and-a-half times a night on the weekend,” he says. “Our menu features dishes with simple, bold flavors.”

The menu is the just the right size for diners looking for variety without being overwhelmed by choices. Appetizers include sun-dried tomato and goat cheese hummus with pita wedges; seared-tuna sashimi with avocado; Cajun-seared shrimp flatbread with roasted poblano; and soft chicken tacos with salsa verde. In addition to several salads and burgers, Juniper Grill features wood-grilled entrees such as Cajun-grilled fish tacos with drunken black beans and rice; rotisserie chicken enchiladas; chipotle skirt steak; slow-smoked, barbecued beef brisket; and salmon with asparagus.

Bell says that everything is made fresh to order, using only the highest-quality ingredients they can find, including produce from Paragon Produce, free-range chicken, and seafood from Euclid Fish Company in Ohio.

“The better the quality of ingredients coming into the kitchen, the better the quality going out,” Bell says.

Carlton Restaurant owner Kevin Joyce referred Bell to Juniper Grill, Koustis says. He and the other partners can’t speak more highly of the chef. He says that the hardest part of the restaurant business is finding quality staff.

“Nick quickly adapts to what our brand is, and is really good at running the kitchen,” Koustis says. “He’s got great creativity. We have a chef’s counter at the exhibition kitchen, and people love sitting there. It creates a little theater.”

Bell says that when he began working at Salvatore’s Catering as a teenager, a chef told him something that has always stuck with him.

“He said that if you want to work in this industry, there must be something wrong with you,” says Bell, laughing. “When I hire chefs, I look for a solid background and composure, and they need a good attitude and drive. But you don’t know what they’re going to be like until you get them in the kitchen.”

The popularity of television shows like “Iron Chef” and “Chopped” puts pressure on chefs to be more creative, he says, and the shows don’t represent what being a chef is all about.

“Shows like that glamorize the job,” Bell says. “I’m here six days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day. I think some (would-be) chefs have no idea what’s involved.”

Juniper Grill