People are surprised to find out that, as someone who makes a living writing about restaurants, I'm ambivalent about reviewing new ones. I love eating at new places—basking in fresh spaces, devouring every menu item with my eyes, tasting a dish for the first time—but I feel slightly uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment. After all, it takes time for restaurants to hit a real rhythm—for the kitchen, front of the house, and diners to figure out how they all fit together.
Going to a new restaurant for the first time is not unlike going on a first date—a situation rife with exhilaration, possibility, and awkwardness. As a self-protective measure, I've found it best to approach my first encounter with a restaurant with as few expectations as possible. (It is always better to be pleasantly surprised.) But then there are places like Joule in Wallingford—open for just over a month—a restaurant about which I have been unable to contain my excitement.
Joule's chefs/owners Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi used to cook at Coupage in Madrona, where they received rave reviews across the board. I regret not eating there during their tenure, mostly because all the praise lavished upon the food focused on Yang's distinct, idiosyncratic culinary vision. It's not an easy feat to successfully meld Korean and French cuisines, but Yang and Chirchi did so at Coupage, and Joule's menu reflects the same divergent influences.
Thankfully, my first meal at Joule was like that rare, arresting, magical first date. At the end of the meal, I was satisfied, strangely giddy, and wanted more. After devouring dessert, I seriously considered ordering a second round of veal sweetbreads. But I didn't—I respect this food too much to just carelessly eat more of it; I want to spend some time getting to know it better.
A complimentary amuse-bouche greeted us at the table almost immediately after we sat down—steamed buns, plump and pillowy glutinous clouds of warmth covered in a sweet soy glaze and topped with finely diced chives. Pork dumplings ($6) with ginger and scallion were sublime, their simplicity and loveliness taken to a higher level by their adorable little warm Staub roasting dish and a sprinkling of crisped lard on top. (My god, those crunchy melty bits of crisped lard—I could eat a giant bowl of them by the handful.)
Spicy beef soup with tender leeks and crème fraîche ($7), unfortunately, lacked real spiciness and complexity of flavor. Considering the Korean influence on Joule's food, the soup's bright-red hue seemed to promise the same spiciness, acidity, and heartiness of soon doo boo but, distressingly, the red tint carried the flavor of tomato paste. While the beef slices were great—soft and fatty—I would have enjoyed this soup more if it had sat simmering for another few hours.
Any doubts that started to creep in after the soup were completely vanquished by veal sweetbreads with tonnato sauce ($12). There is only one name that can be bestowed upon this perfect dish: Goddamn Delicious. The delicate flavor and velvety texture of the sweetbreads were enhanced by a slightly singed, almost crispy sweet, caramelized exterior, and a sauce that, despite its tuna and capers, was mild and soothing.
A whole grilled daurade, served bone in with almond piccata and sweet-and-sour eggplant ($19) was expertly cooked—charred skin, moist, flaky flesh. Joule is a fine-dining restaurant, but it's also a place where you can feel comfortable enough to pick at the fish with your fingers, sift through bones for chunks of oily meat, and lift away the skin on the fish head to get to the best and most flavorful part: the cheeks. A side of roasted potatoes ($5) flavored with salty Spanish anchovies and wild-boar bacon made a fine accompaniment, along with a canning jar of house-made cucumber and shiitake mushroom kimchi ($5).
I only wish Yang and Chirchi would use a little more acid in their dishes to brighten and lift the flavors. In the middle of dinner, I remembered that I had a lemon in my purse from a trip to the co-op that afternoon, and I longed to pull it out and squeeze a little into my soup and onto my fish and kimchi.
The dish that made the strongest impression on me was, oddly, dessert. The signature Joule Box ($7) is an unusual, ingenious combination of creamy tapioca, tart ruby-red grapefruit, and slivers of opal basil, served at room temperature, making it easy to experience the flavors and textures of each element. Nearly every Asian I know (including my dining companion) grew up pouring thick condensed milk over waffles and pancakes instead of maple syrup, and Joule's heavenly condensed-milk ice cream (complete with a delicious, slightly scalded flavor) instantly transported us back to childhood. (It's served alongside a chocolate espresso cake, but an à la carte scoop is available for $2.)
Just like a date who walks on your left side to protect you from the street or winks at just the right moment, Joule endears itself by being attentive to details—a server who knows exactly when to refill your wine glass, rock sugar on the sides of grapefruit slices. When you part ways, you'll already be looking forward to next time.