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.

{page break}

The bar was a great vantage point to spy on Yang and Chirchi in action. “God, I love this food!” sang the effusive Chirchi as he spooned butter over a hot pan of pinkening prawns, the quieter Yang smiling affectionately. They relish the immediate feedback the open kitchen affords, she told me later, which may be why one or the other will pop out occasionally to deliver an amuse-bouche or gratis finale. And it’s why I’m not too nervous about the occasional flavor gaffe—inexplicably bland shiitake–blue cheese lasagna; cornbread that gave us nothing but texture; an otherwise sensational apple-squash galette whose ginger ice cream held no discernable hint of ginger—because these pros are young, skilled, and eager to improve their model. They will listen to their customers.

Certain bigger-picture aspects of their operation trouble me more. Joule is technically an à la carte operation, its menu divided into categories marked “Tossed,” “Simmered,” “Crisped,” “Sparked,” and “Pickled.” Get it? Neither does anyone else. The terms translate to salads, soups, oven-fired appetizers, grilled mains, and pickled sides—though I’m still puzzling out what on earth about the creamy lasagna was crisp. Menu explanations do little to clarify—would “Black beans, pulled pork, soy bean paste, pickled ginger” be a black bean dish with pulled pork in it, or a pulled pork dish with some beans? Servers, though adroit with wine list flambé, are either too harried or not forthcoming enough to offer much in the way of direction. As is common in chef-owned restaurants, these foodie owners place too low a priority on the front of the house.

Pickling is Joule’s calling card. A thrilling distinction that sets it apart from Seattle’s happy surfeit of innovative chef-driven restaurants.

The problem is that food this arcane screams for direction. Without it, diners are likely to walk away unsatisfied. I did, after ordering the mackerel, a bold-flavored fish all crisped in a lovely, sweet soy glaze that grew monotonous for want of a counterpoint. A waiter should have clued me in. Better yet, these crack chefs might have considered designing a whole meal around this robust fish. Say what you will about the joys of small-plate dining; a good chef can compose more intelligent and satisfying pairings than a diner left to her own devices. That’s why we pay ’em the big bucks.

Or, in the case of Joule, the little ones. Yang and Chirchi nailed that part of their operation spot-on: Joule is one of the great bargains in the city for food of this quality, with a refreshingly affordable wine list.

As for their other goal—to purvey food that is fun—that depends entirely on whose definition of fun you’re talking about. Bubba Gump it ain’t. But for a couple of epicurean best friends—who were still bending close over their plates as I left, blissfully trading morsels of octopus with Chinese celery pistou and lamb sirloin with sesame-leaf emulsion—there are few more exciting places in this city than Joule.


READ MORE RESTAURANT REVIEWS.