The 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:
Three 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.
This 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.
The 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.
Dessert 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.