When Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi opened the original Joule in Wallingford five years ago, my three-star review concluded this way: “It’s still early days for this young couple and their first venture, but you can feel the energy percolating … look for Joule to become a considerable force.”
As it happened, the young chefs themselves turned out to be the considerable force. The husband-and-wife team has had the guts and good sense, over the years, to go with their instincts and do what they love. Two years ago, when they opened Revel and Quoin in Fremont, pairing a casual, yet classy, Asian street-food kitchen with a sophisticated bar, they electrified critics and diners alike. Now, with the revamped, re-amped Joule, they’ve set sparks flying anew.
Relocated last November to the Fremont Collective complex (under the same steeply pitched roof as Renee Erickson’s The Whale Wins and the new flagship store for the ski shop evo), Joule has moved into Revel’s territory, not just geographically, but also in spirit.
While Yang’s Korean roots always influenced Joule’s menu, now that culinary heritage drives it. In the hunger games here, salt, bitter, sour and heat are the potent arrows in her quiver, and she aims them adroitly in dish after dish.
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Steak is a focus and the kalbi-marinated short rib steak is a star. Grilled to a rosy medium-rare, the thick, 8-ounce slab is served thickly sliced alongside grilled kimchi and a mean, green Korean chili pepper.
Beef royale is more like Korean pot roast. A flat iron steak is braised into submission and benefits mightily from hours simmering in soy sauce, mirin, sake and chili paste; it wears a piquant bonnet of pickled jalapeño and pearl onions.
The pickled and fermented accents always add interest and never seem extraneous. Pungent fermented mustard greens, for example, deliver the knockout crunch in a winning dish of chewy rice cakes and chunks of chorizo in a fiery red chili sauce.
Warm wedges of toast slick with oyster butter and smoked marrow get crisp pickled shallots to offset the richness. Likewise, rings of pickled leek brighten charred button mushrooms swaddled in a garlicky emulsion of bitter greens.
Pickled leeks, along with smoked chili paste, provide just the pop that creamy seaweed risotto needs. I ordered it with trepidation, and then fell in love with this briny, green-flecked porridge thick with still-firm rice.
The very efficient servers all sing the praises of the smoked tofu salad. It’s not hype. The soft squares of pressed bean curd wear the smoke lightly, along with a splash of soy sauce and truffle oil. The spindly hon-shimeji mushrooms spooned generously on top have been confited with shallots, thyme and garlic.
Mackerel is equally exhilarating, with its blistered and blackened skin side up and its flesh pressed into green curry and cilantro chimichurri, a tart, grassy green sauce that is a and brilliant counterweight to the oily fish.
Not everything was perfect. Beef tartare, crunchy with pine nuts and Asian pear, was inedibly salty one night. Dense and heavy shrimp undermined shrimp cocktail, but, oh what a sauce! The chile-spiked tomato sauce, perfumed with Chinese celery and sparked with ginger beer, was so compelling I finished it with a spoon, like soup.
Joule’s new space has Revel’s hip, high-energy vibe. Up front there is a communal table adjacent to the bar, where I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Lady Mason, a gin cocktail with the herbal complexity of Punt e Mes and green Chartreuse.
The dining room in the rear is lined with banquette seating that is a little tight. I’d rather sit at the kitchen counter and watch Yang, who cooks here most nights while Chirchi helms the kitchen at Revel. Her concentration is fierce as she places pink grapefruit segments and a coin of coconut semi-freddo just-so on a mound of pearl tapioca for her signature “Joule Box” dessert.
Up and down the line she moves constantly, an intense butterfly; giving a hand or a word of advice to her team; plating or finishing dishes; doing whatever’s needed; showing, in her quiet way, she’s a force to be reckoned with.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.