The mescal cocktail arrived a disconcerting cherry blossom pink. Backlit by evening’s ebbing sunshine, it glowed like something Hello Kitty might serve at a bachelorette party. The first sip, however, ushered away any girlie drink trepidation in a cloud of smoke subtly calibrated with grapefruit and lime.
Then came the mussels, fat and perfectly steamed, in a broth thick with roasted garlic and cream and caramelized fennel. My kingdom for a spoon—especially to get at those tiny cubes of potato doing a respectable bacon impression after a trip to the smoker. This restaurant on the edge of Ballard serves dishes that steer hard into the center lane of broad appeal—a burger, risotto, butter lettuce salad. Mussels with white wine appear on menus all over town, in versions too often memorable only because someone screwed it up. But this one, classic French crossed with Northwest chowder, lingers in my memory still.
It’s easy to underestimate Joli. Or to misjudge it completely. In its earliest stages of development, the restaurant was going to be destination French. Maybe French-Italian Riviera? The original partners brought in chef Amy Beaumier, whose tenure at places like RN74, Altura, and Local 360 prepared her nicely to make upmarket moules marinieres and steak frites. But when she surveyed the immediate surroundings—that ill-defined pocket just beyond Ballard’s eastern boundary, where Northwest 65th Avenue psychs itself up for the climb to Phinney Ridge—she saw a culinary gap. The thoroughfare offers a low-slung march of drinkin’ bars, a few casual eateries, a collision repair shop, a laundromat—but no place where neighbors could repair for a nice meal.
The partner who envisioned the French concept later bowed out of the plans; in the course of the shakeup, Beaumier got the green light to make Joli a proper “neighborhood restaurant.” That term can carry a whiff of faint-praise damnation; the chef describes her domain far better: “It’s not a destination, but people can come here for date night.”
By nightfall, this tall room of muted lovely grays adopts chill candlelight and low Beatles tunes; the repurposed church pew booths are the perfect setting for good conversation. Plate after plate proves Beaumier’s ability to spin something memorable out of exceedingly familiar dishes: Brussels sprouts glazed in brown butter harbor sweetness from diced apple; the classic burger with smartly chosen gruyere to enrich a patty of grass-fed beef.
Neighborhood restaurants are like actual neighbors—the best ones still come with foibles. One night’s market fish entree, sockeye salmon with nicely crackled skin, was beached upon a deluge of pureed squash. Even in this “plates come out as they’re ready” world, it’s a bummer when deviled eggs, an unequivocal appetizer, arrive after the entrees, even more so when their flavor doesn’t reflect the vivid splendor of the red piment d’espelette seasoning. Some missteps probably stem from the chef performing 15 different jobs in a small kitchen, but the most bothersome stuff happens in the dining room—long absences, dirty share plates that linger like that one clueless party guest at the end of the night. Damn, it can take a long time to get the check.
Back in that small open kitchen, Beaumier’s prodigious work ethic drives Joli’s most successful dishes. She makes the springy, sesame seeded burger buns and a spot-on house ketchup. She fashions her own ricotta and breaks down rabbits into both meat and stock for a cavatelli dish. These tidy, tiny packets of pasta glisten with savory sauce; it’s marvelous on the same level as the mussels. Need I clarify that this chef makes her pasta by hand?
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that goes into something that looks like a McDonald’s french fry.” Over final sips of my pink cocktail—known, fittingly, as a Waterloo Sunset—I eavesdrop shamelessly on the barman who made it as he raves to a patron a few stools down about Beaumier’s fries. The staffers clearly love their boss and seize any opportunity to praise her food; the new bar manager is no exception.
Robert Rowland’s arrival after the original bar manager’s departure is the other foundational tremor that worked out in Joli’s favor. It’s odd to see him anywhere besides Oliver’s Twist, the Phinney Ridge cocktail bar where he worked for a decade before the owners sold it last year. Rowland recast Joli’s cocktail list with the sort of classics people want before dinner. He also recast the bar area’s whole vibe once word got out among his old regulars. Older couples show him vacation photos, twentysomethings in beanies drink beer and peruse the expansive happy hour menu (after working at places like Dragonfish and RN74, Beaumier takes happy hour very seriously).
It’s been an adjustment, Rowland allows, to make drinks in a setting where most people have come for dinner. So far the learning curve seems kind; he has mastered the menu and can spot a party awaiting a check in a section of the dining room far removed from his own. Joli plays to his strengths—Rowland makes expert drinks, but he’s also a supreme story spinner with a finely tuned hospitality radar in the vein of Murray Stenson, the local bar legend whose talent inspired him down this mescal-splashed career path. He in turn amplifies the neighborly vibe Beaumier sought in the first place.
In 10 years at Oliver’s Twist, Rowland could never devise a clear take on a negroni, nothing quite replicating Campari’s mouthwatering bitterness. At Joli he inherited from the prior bar manager eight bottles of Luxardo Bianco bitters—a head-scratching quantity, but just the thing for a so-called white negroni that’s clear as a vesper.
It’s the standout on Joli’s uniformly excellent cocktail list and perfect with my own plate of those fries, slender, perfectly golden, and still listed as “frites” on the menu, perhaps a throwback to Joli’s French origin story. And a reminder that sometimes the best things emerge from rocky moments.
Note: Beaumeier has since announced she will leave her post as chef at Joli in May.