Joule Brings East and West To the Table With Korean and French Flavors
Category: Eat + Drink Articles
It’s unique, when you think about it. Unlike most cities, where the heights of gastronomy are found in glitzy downtown palaces, many of Seattle’s most intriguing eateries are tucked into tree-lined neighborhoods, waiting to be happened upon by diners who never suspect they’re about to have their world turned upside down by the food they’ll taste.
In Wallingford, there are several such spots: Tilth, where local and organic foods are given idyllic attention; May, with its brilliant Thai flavors revealed in a picture-perfect fashion; and now Joule, the sunny bistro bedecked in flax and slate gray, where conversations of bookish profs and destination foodies converge to fill the tall space with a healthy buzz. It’s an unlikely setting for such a smartly conceived, boldly flavored, intricately plated and delicious globally-inspired menu.
I wasn’t expecting to be this impressed, especially since Joule (pronounced “jool,” and named for the metric unit of energy) had two strikes against it right off the bat. Chef/owners (and husband/wife duo) Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang were coming off of a complicated (some might even say messy) professional break-up when they opened Joule’s doors last fall: They’d left Madrona’s Coupage after just six months, despite earning across-the-board raves for their inventive French-Korean dishes. And they were wading hip-deep into the maligned waters of “fusion cuisine.”
Today, fusion cuisine has about as much cachet as a perm, but two decades ago, when Wild Ginger opened on a then-deserted stretch of Western Avenue serving pan-Asian fusion, it was a revelation. Fusion was the “seasonal, local” of the late ’80s, and it changed Seattle’s dining scene forever.
Granted, that’s a pretty dramatic statement, but I swear that’s how it felt. Wild Ginger (which moved to Third Avenue and Union Street in 2000) now attracts a mostly touristy crowd with approachable pan-Asian fusion dishes. But the original Wild Ginger was considered ahead of its time, marrying the exotic flavors of Thailand with those of Vietnam, Indonesia and other Pacific Rim countries. The resulting fusion cooking was lauded as forward-thinking, exotic, sexy and original; Wild Ginger’s chef, Jeem Han Lock, even won a James Beard award in 1997. And while it might not be popular to say so now, the resulting flavors were, more often than not, impossible to resist.
Joule’s are, too. Yang and Chirchi have done the unlikely: They’ve created a fusion menu that tastes wonderfully original while seeming utterly organic. Though the two chefs are essentially making up their own rules—marrying flavors from Korea (her homeland) and France (both chefs worked in four-star French restaurants in NYC), as well as Italy, Spain, the Mediterranean, even the American South (cornbread and collard greens both make cameos)—each dish is so successfully put together it’s hard to tell where one culinary tradition ends and the next begins.
But before you taste, you’ll have to navigate the menu, which is split into categories including “sparked,” “crisped” and “tossed” to describe the cooking method for each dish. On my visits, my well-versed servers helped me decipher each dish while offering candid opinions. Still, with all of the unusual ingredients, it’s a rather fantastic menu to try to figure out. How the heck will pickled grapes taste alongside grilled branzino (a Mediterranean sea bass) with olive tapenade ($22)? Sublime, it turns out. The sweet-tart grapes brighten the flavor of the oily, salty olives, enhancing the subtly smoky flesh of the fish.
Unusual accompaniments—pickled spring onions here, buttermilk-olive vinaigrette there—are the norm. In one of Yang’