Joule’s high-wire energy

Last night, a friend and I had dinner at Joule, the restaurant in my Wallingford neighborhood “curated” by Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang. (You met Rachel back in April–she masterminded one of the menus for the Food Bank Gourmet fundraiser.) Rachel was cooking, so we sat at the counter to watch as she and her two cooks calmly fed dish after  dish into the waiting hands of the bustling servers. The place was packed (those two empty stools at the counter?–we had just vacated them, and two people from the scrum by the door are nanoseconds away from taking them over). The small-plate format makes for lots of action, but the atmosphere somehow stayed relaxed. Our server Nora materialized right when needed to trade full plates for empty ones, answer questions, and generally be pleasant and helpful.

And the food! In the language of physics, a joule is a unit of energy. How do you measure the energy of a restaurant and a menu? Joule excites your palate with unexpected preparations and pairings of ingredients stocked from a global pantry. What at first reading might seem exotic becomes inevitable (and delicious!) on the tongue.

The menu is organized around “Flavors: Abroad,” “Flavors: Native,” and “Flavors: Collected” (a family-style supper of seven dishes). We didn’t travel out to the edgier regions–no grilled beef tongue with Chinese celery pesto and caramelized fish sauce, no seaweed butter or grilled octopus cocktail. Even so, we found plenty to delight us.

The asparagus salad combined shaved raw asparagus with arugula, walnuts, and basil yogurt. The earthiness of the curls of raw asparagus and lightly peppery arugula was balanced by the sweetness of the nuts and the smooth cool yogurt. We followed that with the spicy beef soup with leeks, daikon, and crème fraiche. The beef (chunks, not strands!) was tender and tasty and the broth kicked up a nice tingle. The killer plate for me, though, was the Joule BBQ (short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi)–the ribs pink in the center and succulent, the moist sausage balancing sweet chili, char, and spicy sauce in your mouth, and the (low-wattage) kimchi adding a clean touch of sour and crunch.

I couldn’t skip the “Joule box,” tapioca pearls with grapefuit brulee. (If tapioca is on the menu, I order it; there’s just something about the feel of those silky tapioca marbles in my mouth.) This version had Thai notes of lime and coconut milk. We watched the cook blast the grapefruit sections with his blowtorch and wondered what would arrive on our plates; the result was a surprisingly subtle sweet kick to the tartness of the fruit.

Joule works with some pretty high-wire concepts but doesn’t put a foot wrong in offering great food with surprising, delightful flavors, textures, and presentation. This summer they are doing a Sunday series of BBQ, as the menu says, “inspired.” I’ve missed the Backyard, Hawaii, Seatown, Thailand, South, and Korea menus, but I’ve still got a shot at Greece, New England, Vietnam, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Japan. Stay tuned!

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