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30 Restaurants in 30 Days: Joël Brasserie

joel1The party of three secured one of the last free tables on a busy Thursday night at Joël Brasserie — that size-reduced, downscaled, weekday-special-touting restaurant that used to be big, fancy Joël.

Madame #1 was in a resplendent red jacket covered in so many sequins that it shimmered like snakeskin. Madame #2 was plainly dressed in a black skirt and cardigan. Monsieur wore a turtleneck under a blazer and sported Daniel Libeskind black-framed glasses.

All three ordered the evening’s special — coq au vin served with a glass of the newly released Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($19). Because there were three of them and they appeared to be regulars, sommelier Perrine Prieur gave them the whole bottle.

This scene made me happy. I loved seeing this dressy Buckhead party taking advantage of a bargain. Fifty-eight dollars for three — food and wine! It said to me that this restaurant that has struggled so hard to stay relevant in today’s economy had succeeded in making itself into a neighborhood brasserie.

I have to say that I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joël that evening. Would it be dead? Would it be filled with conventioneers munching on overpriced hamburgers?

This star-crossed, edge-of-Buckhead restaurant opened in the days after 9/11 and has never seemed to shake its inauspicious beginnings.

In recent years the restaurant has downsized — sloughing off its vast, pretty and too-often empty bar. Then namesake chef, Joël Antunes, left for a high profile job at the Plaza Hotel in New York leaving his deputy, Cyrille Holota, in charge. Then the restaurant opted to let go of its fine-dining ambitions and attached both the word “brasserie” to its name and a hamburger to its dinner menu.

Soon, word went out that it was offering pizza and beer night on the patio. Those of us who watch the restaurant industry couldn’t help but wonder if vultures were flying overhead.

I think not. Joël is a different restaurant today, but one that seems to have successfully remade itself. If you haven’t been in years, I would urge you to give it another go.

You want motivation? Try this: the restaurant is offering a $39 four-course meal throughout the end of the year. This isn’t one of those patronizing  “salmon or chicken for the cheapskates” menus but rather a true taste of chef Holota’s talent.

Look what we dined on that night:

joel1aThree plump Kushi oysters in cider vinegar with pink peppercorn bits started things off grandly. I loved the way the tingly sweetness of the spice (which isn’t a peppercorn at all but rather the dried berry from an unrelated plant) brought out the cucumber taste in the oysters.

joel2This frothy Jerusalem artichoke soup held four plump, sweet Nantucket Bay scallops (much larger than typical bay scallops) and melting shards of Parmesan cheese. Holota has a sure hand with cream and salt, meaning he knows just when to back off.   What you notice is the soft flavor of the vegetable, not the seasoning.

joel3The main course consisted of two fat slices of duck breast with a quenelle of (slightly sticky) truffled polenta and a wedge of roasted quince. Those brown specks on the rim of the bowl are toasted Chinese Five Spice powder that make you feel kind of opium-den happy every time you lean over to take a bite. The warming smell also made a canny bridge to the spice flavors in my glass of Côtes du Rhône.

joel4Dessert was (let’s see if I can type this without my fingers trembling at the memory) a perfectly baked Fuji apple poised on a sablée cookie. Inside the hollowed-out apple was a dollop of warm pastry cream, and cool gingerbread ice cream melted over the top. Our waitress provided both a fork and a spoon, the ideal utensil combo for separating the hot, soft apple flesh from the leathery skin.

Add in two glasses of wine, and the bill came to about $98 for a smartly portioned meal that, I think, rivals any in town.

This may be a strange comment to make about a $100 dinner for two, but I think it just may be the best bargain around.

16 comments Add your comment

Puhleease

November 25th, 2009
9:06 am

I like your reviews far more than M Ford Goldman’s. She came across as condescending and snobbish. If one dared to question a detail in her blog, she reacted with disdain for that remark.
Thanks.

Dunwoody Don

November 25th, 2009
9:28 am

The last meal my wife and I had at Joel’s [about a year ago] rivaled any we ever had at Seeger’s or the Ritz. Sounds like time for an encore.

BTW – JK, what are your plans for the next 30 days? It’s way too soon for you to stop now.

Ted

November 25th, 2009
10:29 am

Meridith is an excellent writer, with a witty sense of humor. I miss her daily blog. I have no problem with Kessler, but running to the computer and reading MFG was one of my favorite things.

Amanda

November 25th, 2009
10:38 am

I just have to tell you how much I have LOVED reading all you have written this month. I second Dunwoody Don’s request for thirty more days but can understand how that might be rough on your family and waistline. The more we can get from you, the better!

John Kessler

November 25th, 2009
10:50 am

Thanks, everyone. Ted — I’ll make sure Meridith sees your comment. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.

BPJ

November 25th, 2009
11:02 am

Joël is one of the two best restaurants in town – Bacchanalia being the other.

Broderick

November 25th, 2009
11:45 am

You’ve succeeded in making me very hungry, I need to check this place out again soon…

M. Johnson

November 25th, 2009
12:02 pm

I definitely plan to check them out before the end of the year. I HOPE to try the oysters AND the baked Fuji apple dessert. It sounds DIVINE! Thanks for the update.

D

November 25th, 2009
12:31 pm

JK- 30 more, pretty please? This has been delightful. You are now the rock star of foodies in Atlanta.

Academic Socialite

November 25th, 2009
12:35 pm

JK – thanks so much for this review! We live on ATL’s west side and were regulars at Joel when it first opened. We loved the food, quickly became friends with the staff, loved that Adrien had a cocktail ready for us before we even knew what we wanted to order, and LOVED going back into the kitchen occasionally and chatting w/ chef Antune. It was a beautiful restaurant and a beautiful bar, albeit way too empty at times. After the closing and then the “grand reopening,” we did go back a time or two, but felt rushed, cramped and just, well, SAD. No Joel, no Adrien (our favorite waiter) and no Phillipe Buttin. After reading your review, I realize it’s time for me to just get over it!! I know you’re right when you say that it’s one of the best deals in town. It’s definitely time to try Joel Brasserie again – the sooner, the better!

Steven A.

November 25th, 2009
12:40 pm

I enjoy reading both JK and MF for different reasons. I tend to agree with the former more than the latter, but I really think she takes way too much unjustified abuse in this town. I don’t understand the animosity.

Madge

November 25th, 2009
2:07 pm

I agree with Steven A., and I’ve found Meredith Ford Goldman to be very responsive. I dined at Shaun’s soon after her review was published and our party had a horrible experience. I emailed her the next day, and within hours, I had a response from her and a suggestion to send the same email to the restaurant. I did, and heard back from Shaun’s immediately, with apologies and a gift certificate for dinner, so that we would go back and try it again. We did, and I’m happy to report the first experience was the anomaly. Now I know better, and wait a few weeks (or months) after a positive review to check out a new restaurant because sometimes they can’t handle the rush after a good review. I’m glad we have such great food writers here in Atlanta. Such a treat!

Grammar King

November 30th, 2009
1:45 pm

I went to Joel once, and I will not go back. It was for my girlfriend’s birthday. We are a young, early/mid-twenties couple. They treated us like garbage. We had a reservation, but were not seated (in a mostly empty dining room) for about 20 minutes. Then, no waiter came to take a drink order or to bring water for another 15 or 20 minutes. Throughout the course of our meal, we probably had 4 different servers. Our pre-dinner drinks came out from the bar wrong, the bottle of wine that was brought to us was not what we ordered, and my girlfriend’s meal was terrible (my food, however, was good). For an expensive meal (>$150, with tip), it was a miserable experience. I have told my friends, my parents, and my coworkers to never, under any circumstances, go to Joel.

Drama Queen

December 1st, 2009
5:34 pm

In response to Grammar King – Deal in reality dude, you’ve never been to this restaurant! If you want to post bovine squat, why don’t you frequent the National Enquirer! Joel has NEVER allowed a table to be serviced by more than one waiter(tress) and I can guarantee you never waited 15 minutes for a table! Grow up and post reality instead of fabrication! Au Revoir!

Emily C. Seigler

December 9th, 2009
11:35 am

We sat across from John Kessler on the beaujolais nouveau evening. It was fun to see what he ordered as my husband and I enjoyed the coq au vin special which was delicious. We have also enjoyed the mussels special outside on the patio during warmer evenings. A friend gave us a gift card to Joel and we have loved it!

[...] experience a French-inspired meal sure to bring you closer together, this Atlanta foodie favorite is offering a fab four-course [...]