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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Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out: http://www.sozoplanet.com)

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.