The First Joel

Art of the Meal

Ah, the holidays: If, for kids, the season is about toys, for grown-ups it's all about food. Diets go up like wood smoke in chimneys; the eyes of silver-haired patriarchs glitter as greedily as toddlers? at the thought of dessert. If you're like me, you long for a really special meal, one that fills you with wonder instead of sheer heft. You want to go to a quiet, adult celebration, where people throw off their smart overcoats and reveal cool, big-city clothes. You want a place that fills you with thanks to be in this town, at this stage in your life, with someone who can enjoy the moment with you.





Atlanta has a few places that qualify — The Ritz-Carlton's Dining Room, Seeger's, BaC.C.hanalia and Joel, the namesake restaurant of chef Joel Antunes. Antunes, former chef at The Ritz-Carlton, oversaw the construction of this $5-million space, so spare and sophisticated it could be a page from Italian Vogue. Don't be put off by the suburban-faux-Tuscan-villa exterior: The dark, pin-spotted bar is one of the suavest meeting places in town; the dining room booths' earth-toned leather panels are like a Mondrian painting, a stately backdrop for the swoop and swish of crepe-soled servers.





The reasons to go to Joel are the environment, the encyclopedic wine list (which won a place on Food & Wine's top 10 list last year) and the incomparable food. On previous visits, we've found the service to be timely and professional, but a recent dinner revealed a few flaws. Despite a reservation made far in advance for an early dinner in a still-empty house, we were swiftly deposited at a table near the heavily trafficked door. Once there, we were left alone a little too long, more than once; we found ourselves trying to catch a server's eye, to no avail.





Still, when Joel is on, it's wonderful. The menu is French, informed with Asian and Mediterranean influences, prepared with iconoclastic methods like Antunes' signature froths — airy broths and sauces whipped until the bubbles are trapped like whipped cream. The fricasee of shrimp with lemongrass broth is an excellent example: The cut-up ("fricaseed") shrimp float in a creamy bubble bath, redolent with the citrusy Asian herb. You'll also find classic French ingredients — snails, sweetbreads, veal cheeks, confit, foie gras, the latter an addictive little business, slow-cooked in a small iron pot with fig compote. Just try to enter the restaurant again without ordering it.





The menu also includes plenty of farmhouse larder stock: beef tenderloin with potatoes, carrots and artichokes; pork with homemade sausage. Vegetarians will be rewarded with some of the sleekest preparations on the bill of fare: eggplant terrine with tomato confit and goat cheese; cannelloni with porcinis and white mushroom broth. Roast sea bass on butternut squash tortellini represents Antunes' tightrope walk between comfort and cool: It has the silken reassurance of a security blanket, with a lemon-pepper wake-up call. Slices of duck breast fanned around fried polenta balls, with pear, orange and coriander sauce, are alternately deeply rich, prickly with spice and gently sweet.





Although Joel ranks among the city's top restaurants, entree prices are reasonable (most in the $20 range). There's also an outstanding value in the three-course, $29 dinner, available weeknights. Still, at times I felt a bit underfed — two small polenta balls, or a few little tortellini, might work for Atkins dieters, but otherwise, you'll want to order a side of the organic grits.





Tea drinkers will be delighted with Joel's high-quality brews, including Egyptian chamomile and jasmine dragon phoenix pearls (the hand-rolled pearls slowly open while steeping). Among the desserts, the poached pineapple with coconut ice cream was the only item we ordered that failed to shake or stir us. But in a season when you'd trade sugar for spice, that may not seem so important.







Joel


3290 Northside Parkway, Atlanta, 404-233-3500


Reservations: Encouraged, but not required.


Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays.


Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays.


5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.


Parking: On-site.


Prices: Dinner entrees, $19-$38. A special three-course dinner for $29 will be available at least until the end of the year.


Credit cards: All major.


Attire: Smart, big-city clothes.





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