Dude, do you taste truffles in this tofu? I think this is truffle oil in the smoked tofu!” frothed one 25-ish brah with a trimmed goatee and a baseball cap. “I can’t tell,” answered Dude. “But I’m pretty sure these are fermented soybeans on my steak.”
Say hello to the new normal in Seattle, land of the twentysomething connoisseurs, where truffles get tagged at 20 paces and even the frat boys know their fermented soybeans. A big reason is a pair of married chefs named Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi.
Yang and Chirchi had earned their classical French stripes working in Alain Ducasse’s New York kitchens when they were lured west in 2006 to head up the kitchen of Coupage, the short-lived Korean-Continental restaurant in the Madrona neighborhood. Believing they could improve on that misplaced and overpriced—and promising—experiment, they set forth to launch a place
of their own: a humble storefront in Wallingford they called Joule.
When it opened in 2007, Joule was like nothing Seattle had ever tasted. Not only were Korean thrills like kimchi and fermented tofu and pickled vegetables still breaking news outside the exotic mom-and-pops of Shoreline and Federal Way, we’d never seen them fused with classic Western cuisine. I’d walk into the pretty little Joule-box to have dinner, yes, but mostly to have my head explode: kalamata olive gnocchi with Gruyere and pickled red pepper; roasted fennel soup drizzled with chili sauce and topped with clams doused in the Hong Kong seafood sauce XO; roasted carrots with ginger butter and—what are those?—pickled grapes. The East-West collisions were startling. Back then what I would overhear from neighboring tables was studied silence, as diners parsed this weird-ass fusion with laboratory fascination.
What a difference five years makes. In that time, Yang and Chirchi became a brand. Their chaser to the success of Joule was the more casual, more contemporary, more affordable Korean street food cafe Revel and its modernist cocktail bar Quoin in Fremont; joints which, through accessibly innovative comfort food, big noisy vitality, and killer cocktails, snared and schooled a youthful fan base. For chefs who had been reinventing culinary wheels nightly at Joule, the more categorical approach of Revel—differently accoutered dumplings, pancakes, and noodle bowls—equaled more freedom.
So that’s how they decided to recast Joule, which moved to the Fremont Collective last October. Now it’s a steak house, featuring lowbrow cuts and elevated preparations. Take the petit tender, the teres major portion of the shoulder which is often dismissed by chefs as a part of the populist chuck, but which in Yang’s hands goes buttery as tenderloin.
The petit tender is then draped in its rich juices and topped with a compound butter of preserved tofu, an ingenious element evoking both the heady fermentation of Korean cuisine and the tangy blue cheese butter so often used to top Western steaks. Skipping across the plate were frizzled shallots for crunch and—Dude was right!—fermented soybeans. Fusion at its astonishing finest.
The beef preparations are delectable as they are cerebral, and exactingly prepared. The concept is up to you, a la carte: You may choose a main—four steaks, four “other than steaks”—and/or your choice of starter, salad, rice or noodle, and vegetable. As in most chef-driven restaurants, invention belts loudest off the starter list—beef tartare with Asian pear and spicy cod roe aioli; toast with oyster butter, smoked marrow, and pickled shallot.
Me, I was interested in the lower reaches of the menu, where I could craft dinner combos like the kalbi short rib steak—the house signature, imported from the original Joule at the insistence of addicts—with the spicy rice cake. I learned too late that dishes arrive serially here unless you request them together. I would have loved to alternate bites of the steak with the rice cake, which turned out to be extraordinary: sauteed slices of Korean mochi, bound in a fierce brown sauce with chunks of chorizo and pickled mustard greens. As a girl in Korea, Yang would enjoy after-school treats of sliced rice cake from street vendors; I wonder if it was half as satisfying as these chewy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside pennies, edged with salt from the greens and fire from the sausage.
I could go on. Instead I’ll leave you with guidance for your own reconnaissance. Servers are pros: quick and friendly and fully informed. If it’s available, tofu lovers should aim into the smoked tofu with honshimeji mushrooms and soy truffle vinaigrette—a dish of quiet pleasures positively swelling with umami. Best of the vegetables is the charry Chinese broccoli with walnut pesto. Everyone will relish the meaty burger, impossibly juicy with kalbi, and offset with horseradish and pickled vegetables. Dessert you can skip. Never Joule’s strong suit, these sound fascinating—ubu cheesecake, apple bread pudding with foie gras, chocolate sesame cake—but lack the courage of their flavor convictions. If you’re going to put foie gras in my apple bread pudding, I want to taste it. (I guess.)
I’m pretty sure Dude couldn’t taste his either; I’d have heard about it. The tables in the sleek room with the lofty rafters and the wall of windows are lined up like good soldiers across from the open kitchen, leaving diners shoulder to shoulder with strangers in awkward proximity.
Then again, everything about the place screams New Paradigm: the long communal table in the bar, the forefronting of the cocktail program (cocktails here are muscular and exciting), the shared front door (with neighboring restaurant the Whale Wins). You walk in and the place hits you in all your senses—loud Oakland blues, big buzzing crowd, smoky aromas from the grill.
All of which makes this Joule less the spiritual descendent of its reverent predecessor and more that of its jumpy sibling, Revel. All right by a new generation of beer-pong foodies, more than all right by me.
Published: February 2013