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Fresh Look: Joli Kobe Kitchen

After 28 years, the Sandy Springs bistro and bakery evolves

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Twenty. Eight. Years. That's how long the little French-Japanese bakery by the name of Joli Kobe has been baking bread and building a clientele in Sandy Springs. Can you even imagine what this congested stretch of Roswell Road looked like 28 years ago? How much the neighborhoods around it have changed? How the dining tastes of the people around it have evolved?

Back then, not many Atlantans had heard of ramen, let alone kimchi and bacon dashi. But pound cake and croissant and chicken salad? Mais, oui! In the beginning, Joli Kobe forged a successful path based on comforting baked goods and elegant sandwiches sprinkled with exotic touches. But today, when places like Miso Izakaya are winning raves with bold, Japanese-inflected concoctions, and the globe-spanning eateries of Buford Highway are so integral to Atlanta dining, there's clearly a demand for food that embraces more than just marginal inspirations.

So after nearly three decades, Joli Kobe is embracing its heritage much more overtly. The pastry-centric bakery has been joined by a full-fledged bistro, and the choice of Mihoko Obunai to lead the kitchen seems a match made in French-Japanese heaven. Obunai grew up in Japan before training at the French Culinary Institute in New York. She first made her mark in Atlanta in 2006 as co-chef and co-owner of the now-shuttered Repast, a restaurant that brilliantly intertwined the flavors of Japan and the American South.

Since taking the reins in February, Obunai's bistro menus are slowly and steadily taking shape, like a bridge under construction from Joli Kobe's past into something new. The restaurant is still figuring out how to get regulars interested in what sits on the other side.

What Obunai is crafting now at Joli Kobe is rife with Japanese influence and a hefty dose of local organics. Outwardly, Joli Kobe exhibits a touch of muted Asian elegance amid the plethora of chain restaurants at the Prado development just inside I-285. The interior follows suit, subtly Japanese, with a wood-dominated minimalism that feels neither warm nor overdone. As you walk in, the tempting bakery is to the right, the bistro to the left. The dining room gets a view of an impressively outfitted open kitchen and a typically deserted (but well-stocked) bar.

At a recent lunch, I noticed two different tables of women of a certain age who looked over their menus with befuddlement. One asked the waiter, "Do you have the old menu?" And, actually, he did. The server quickly produced a five-item menu of Joli Kobe café "originals" like curry chicken salad and a simple grilled chicken sandwich. The woman's relief was palpable.

Joli Kobe's lunch menu — the new one — breaks out into salads ($9), sandwiches ($9-$10), and more substantial plates ($10-$16). The offerings change frequently, driven by seasonal produce or meats available from purveyors like Gum Creek Farms or Woodland Gardens. Obunai's roots show up strongly in dishes like the ever-evolving bowl of tonkotsu ramen, sometimes with pork belly, sometimes beef, sometimes spicy, often graced by house-made kimchi. On a few visits, the ramen has ranged from rich and intoxicating pork and noodle heaven to mild and subtly pleasant, depending on the iteration. Her instincts seem well-suited to seafood as well, with house-cured salmon and smoked trout showing a cared-for clarity of each fish's flavor, paired with crisp accents like yuzu-pickled cucumber or shaved hakurei turnips.

Obunai's lunchtime sandwiches are bold. Plump, messy fried oysters come slathered in remoulade, topped with pickled jalapeño, piled inside thick, buttered slices of pain de mie. A crisp, fried pork cutlet topped with chili garlic aïoli and a Brussels sprouts kimchi bursts with bright flavor, but was a bit too dry in some places, too chewy in others. A decadent croissant, spread with mayonnaise and filled with thin slices of speck and melted Georgia Jack cheese, is pure, gooey indulgence.

It's a bit jarring that these fatty flavor bombs sit beside many other menu items that proudly call out their vegan or gluten-free nature, but an elegantly composed bowl of quinoa with granny smith apples over crisp and flavorful mixed greens is a light and wholesome departure.

The 10-item dinner menu hews more closely to Obunai's hallmarks, starting off with veggie-focused small plates (around $6) like wild mushrooms and spring onions a la plancha, or simple sautéed chard with assertive ginger accents. The handful of entrées ($12-$16) also depends on what's come in from the farm — maybe an unusual cut of beef, like a lean but juicy teres major steak, quickly seared and served over a thin bourbon jus with a side of soft, curry-spiced carrots. Or smoky Georgia trout, drizzled with tangy yuzu vinaigrette, served with a tangle of grilled asparagus and fresh arugula.

The beverage menu is fairly concise, but still offers a range of interesting sakes, shochu, eclectic wines by the glass, and several good Japanese and craft beers. The bar seems fully stocked, but I've yet to see any sort of cocktail list.

Once paired with a glass of unusual sake or shochu, a meal at Joli Kobe starts to feel more like the kind of adventurous, almost-fine-dining bistro that could pull people from all over town. The kitchen may not quite be firing at full steam yet, and the service staff could use some experience, but this is the type of change that I hope Sandy Springs will embrace. An inescapable aspect of dinner at Joli Kobe over the past few weeks has been the utter lack of fellow diners.

Owner Vic Watanabe says, "We feel that it is time to introduce new Japanese food and culture to this community." Hopefully more people, in Sandy Springs and beyond, will catch on to what Joli Kobe is doing. I'm certainly eager to see where Joli Kobe can go, where the bridge Obunai is building will lead. After 28 years, isn't it about time?

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