IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for the conversation at the next seat to turn me into an eavesdropper. “Look at this,” marveled one of the women, her head bending so close to her short ribs that her nose may have touched their topping of daikon kimchi. Her companion was similarly engrossed in her own plate. “What do you suppose this is?” she wondered aloud, spearing a dark something onto her fork from her dish of glistening roasted carrots. (It was a pickled grape.)
As their meal unfolded, this pair of close friends—they must be close because they were able to suspend all attention to each other in order to revel together in the culinary novelties that comprise dinner at Joule—found much to examine closely. Joule is that kind of restaurant. (Another diner was so intensely inspecting the menu, her wine list caught fire from her table votive and was discreetly removed from her hand by an alert server—all without the diner noticing. Later she flagged her waiter and reported with some annoyance that “someone had walked off” with her wine list. “It was,” replied the server with masterful restraint, “in flames.”)
This little Joule—a slotlike Wallingford storefront with square tables, an open kitchen in back, pretty Asian wallpaper, low lights, those perilous votives—looks nice enough. But it’s not best used as a place to conduct business or propose marriage or even have a personal conversation.
No, Joule is a culinary lab, where it’s all about the food. The owners, the fresh, young newly wedded chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, would undoubtedly balk at that description, as their aim in opening Joule last November was to purvey food that was fun at a price point they themselves could afford. Imported from New York in 2006 by hot Portland chef Tom Hurley to open his high-ticket Seattle debut Coupage, the chefs found themselves out of a job a few months later when Hurley scaled down his vision (and his overhead) by donning the chef’s whites himself. So they took their impressive New York credentials—both Alain Ducasse; she Per Se—and began drafting dreams of their own place. In lieu of big-bucks backers the pair solicited support from their family and began hashing out a menu that some would call Korean-French, but they called eclectic American.
Having now tasted much of it, I’ll go instead with “world beat.” How else to describe a bowl of mild roasted-fennel soup—the soul of epicurean Europe—drizzled with a clangor of chili sauce and crowned with fresh Northwest Manila clams that had been doused in the briny Cantonese seafood sauce called XO? I mean…besides astonishing? Or a plate of prawns beautifully fired in buttery chermoula, the Middle Eastern spice compound, then scattered with sweet butternut squash chips? Or pillowy little blue kalamata-olive gnocchi—teased with a hint of Gruyère, pocked with toasted almonds, then sent into orbit with the simple addition of pickled red pepper?
Pickling is Joule’s calling card; the distinction that sets it apart from Seattle’s happy surfeit of innovative chef-driven restaurants, and, as distinctions go, a pretty thrilling one. Yang and Chirchi take our palates to Korea, only they sneak us there via Western conveyances. Roasted carrots glistening with ginger butter are terrific; add a pickled grape, and the resulting sour-sweet gush, juicy and entirely unexpected in Western cuisine, highlights every other flavor on your tongue. Fermentation (pickling sans vinegar) opens up an even headier dimension, as in the dice of daikon kimchi heaped on top of succulent kalbi-marinated short ribs. Sweet, tangy, fiery with chilies, this dish made me want to order the other kimchi sides (cucumber with shiitake mushroom, daikon, and Asian pear) I could see Chirchi preparing in little ramekins from my perch at the kitchen bar.