Joule Is a Jewel
Prepare the Hyperbole for the New Location of a Wallingford Favorite
The new location of Joule is going to get this city's headline writers all in a tizzy: "New Joule Crackles with Electricity"; "Joule's Kinetic Conversion"; "Atoms at New Joule Literally Vibrate"; "Joule Something Calories Something." It will sorely tempt those inclined to begin articles with definitions (Merriam-Webster's, "joule: a unit of work or energy equal to the work done by a force of one newton acting through a distance of one meter"; Wikipedia, "One joule in everyday life is approximately: the energy required to lift a small apple one meter straight up... the energy released when that same apple falls one meter to the ground").
The old-timey English beardo that the unit of measurement is named after, James Prescott Joule, came from a family that owned a brewery. According to Wikipedia, he and his brother "experimented" with electricity by shocking each other (but we all did that—right?) and the servants (oh, the good old days). On his honeymoon, "Marital enthusiasm notwithstanding," Wikipedia reports in a waggish mode, he conducted "an experiment... to measure the temperature difference between the top and bottom of the Cascade de Sallanches waterfall." The romance!
Joule would approve of the wallpaper at the new Joule, a blue-on-blue damask that scans as florally sedate until your eye catches on the repeating pattern of a black diamond inside atomic-orbital rings. A vintagey neon sign advertising JEWELRY (with the "RY" unilluminated) is hoisted high in the loftlike front of the space, and the bartop and kitchen counter are white marble; the rest of the design is highly contemporary, with concrete floors and clean lines and a frieze of alternating window and mirror. Especially compared to the narrow storefront Joule occupied in Wallingford, the new Stone Way space is filled with, yes, energy. Outside, when it's not raining, people waiting for tables gather around a flickering fire pit, drinking their drinks; inside, the room's unseparated spaces flow, bar to communal table to kitchen counter to the clubby, low-ceilinged back. The ambient din is loud and celebratory.
And, as is currently de rigueur, Joule looks right across into Renee Erickson's also-brand-new the Whale Wins, which plays the lovely European country cousin to Joule's citified chic. Beyond that, the renovated warehouse houses a slick retailer for "the lifestyle and product needs for the urban action-sports enthusiast"; up in the air, all along the windowed front of the building, none of these spaces are divided at all, the atoms and energy of Joule and Whale and urban-action-sports commingling.
Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi's new Joule has been described as a Korean steak house, but given the current incarnation of the menu, that doesn't seem nearly adequate. They've veered away from the more formal you-get-your-entrée-and-I'll-get-mine approach of the old menu; this iteration is more like their newer Revel, where you order a bunch, share it all, and revel in (or fight over) it. Our server one night said that five dishes between two people would be just right, but he was wrong (but, hey, the leftovers were excellent). While the all-Washington-and- Oregon wine list lacks any bargains, food prices average around $12 per plate, which seems more than fair for the portions, quality, and surprises of deliciousness.
The meat called "'that' short rib steak" (eight ounces, $18) is served on a smear of brick-red, superheroically savory kalbi sauce, and it's 'that' good: salty-seared exterior, melty tenderness inside, with an extensive marbling of buttery fat. The coulotte steak (eight ounces, $18) seems austere in contrast, served with arguably too-scant Szechuan peppercorn sauce—it's almost hard to pick up the tingly flavor—and a grilled green onion or two draped over the top. If you sit at the kitchen counter, you'll see the hood over the grill struggling to suck up all the smoke, hunks of meat sizzling away, the pork chops almost prehistorically enormous, the kalbi burgers looking great.
You'll also see Yang obsessively wiping platters that already look pristine, or replating a whole mackerel if she judges the presentation somehow lacking. The mackerel preparation ($17) seems geared to the fans of the oily, rich, unapologetic fish in a brilliant way—it's crusted and plated with an equally forceful, wonderful green curry with whole coriander seeds, topped with leaves of the same plant (aka cilantro), currants, and pickled onions and carrots for crunchy-sweet contrast. So much flavor, without any quarreling; it is really, really good.
Elsewhere the food is sometimes startlingly restrained, while still reflecting layers of thinking. The kimchi ($6) is "white"—none of the violently red spices—and "stuffed," layered with pine nuts and currants and julienned carrots. It doesn't have the usual fermented skunkiness of kimchi; it tastes clean and peppery and bright, the perfect bite between other bites. The smoky Chinese broccoli ($9) has stalks still crisp enough to snap, heat-wilted leaves, and a rough-cut walnut "pesto" that tingles with tartness—plus a few roasted garlic cloves so buttery, it seems almost wrong (in a way that's very right). Joule's mushrooms ($9), cooked whole over high heat until blackened, will make you rethink all the sliced mushrooms you've ever sautéed; they come with little rounds of leek that still have textural gumption and a tasty puree of bitter greens. All together, it's a subtle but complex sweet-and-salty-and-bitter effect, the kind of thing you might spend a lot of time trying to replicate at home.
Noodle freaks need to know now about Joule's spicy rice cake with chorizo and pickled mustard greens ($12). The disks of rice cake are dense but squishy, almost squidlike in texture; the chorizo is bountiful, chewy, and delightfully gamey-tasting; the pickled greens add their pickley-greensy thing; and the whole shebang swims in a rich, spicy, chili-smoky sauce of magic that should be on everything, everywhere. In fact, when the other rice noodle dish ($12) turned out to be the sole disappointment of the new Joule—the noodles a little hard, the broth just thin and vaguely sweetish—it got mixed in with the rice cake leftovers, coated in the miracle sauce, and became part of something great.
There's lots more greatness to try—fresh-tasting drunken shrimp grilled whole; chunky beef tartare with a bit of a chew to it and Korean spices, Asian pear, pine nuts, a trace of cod roe aioli; a shrimp cocktail with a pureed Chinese celery and ginger beer sauce that could (maybe should) be served as a cold soup. The smoked tofu salad and the beef royale look fabulous. But while the kitchen's still getting its feet under it, any delays aren't egregious and the menu feels smart: plenty for you to explore without overwhelming, plenty for them to show off without overreaching. Cue the "Joule is a jewel" rhetoric, for it is as true as such silly-sounding stuff can be.