I arrived in Atlanta during Joël's great lull. After the well-deserved hype when the restaurant opened in 2001 and a "Best Chef of the Southeast" James Beard award in 2005, Joël Antunes' eponymous restaurant hit a bit of a downturn. The huge space on Northside Parkway was built on a grand scale, which worked well on nights when the place was packed but seemed cold and a tad unfriendly on slower evenings. Towering ceilings and giant windows were impressive for about a minute, and then made it feel as though you were eating in a modern art gallery. Interesting, but not comforting.
After a while, service seemed to reflect that chill. On my first visit to Joël, the greatness in the modern French cooking was self-evident – who could deny the focused intent of that tomato sorbet sitting in the Andalusian gazpacho? But the food was lacking something difficult to explain. The heart seemed to be missing.
Now Joël has shrunken in size and changed its outfit, as well as unveiled a slightly less expensive menu that joins in the general new feel of the restaurant, in that it's meant to evoke a modern, grand brasserie. The space is about half the size, designed in oranges and browns, and feels almost cozy. There are sacrifices in this shrinkage – the long and grand bar is gone, replaced by a nook between the host stand and dining room. The restrooms, among the first in Atlanta to earn their own buzz, are also gone, and now the restrooms are off an office-building hallway behind the restaurant.
But for the warmth and energy in the new space, and the reinvigoration of Antunes' cooking, the sacrifice of bar and restroom seems well worth it.
Even early in the evening and early in the week, the restaurant is close to full, and the laughter, tinkling glasses and happy conversation do more for the atmosphere of the place than any redesign. It's obvious, though, the two go hand in hand, and if the new digs have inspired more customers, they have also somehow inspired the chef.
The menu is divided into hot appetizers, cold appetizers, fish entrees, meat entrees and sides. Also, the nightly specials menu usually offers another five or six options.
Antunes is at his best when he's thinking up unlikely combinations. His feel for textural and taste contrasts combined with a flawless technical exactitude makes for some astounding dishes. Blue fin tartar with avocado sorbet and pineapple lime dressing finds the cool fish paired with a sorbet that has retained all the velvet texture and rich flavor of the avocado. Chestnut fricassee with porcini ravioli and button mushrooms are topped with shaved truffles, and the combination has the luxurious, creamy chestnuts singing a musky forest ballad.
Sauteed snails are about as far from the garlic-heavy rubbery morsels you might imagine; instead the fat and tasty snails are paired with olives, sweet grapes and small pasta stuffed with capers. This is not a combination I can imagine anyone else pulling off, and yet the sweet, meaty and salty components become completely harmonious in Antunes' hands.
The chef is also having a lovely romance with game this fall, on the regular menu pairing pheasant with quince, the meat wrapped around a mild black-olive-tapenade stuffing. A recent special of rabbit was also exquisite, the meat swathed in a rich rabbit reduction and set off by crunchy celery and soft dried pears. These dishes are elegant and intelligent, cooked with purpose and love.
Not every dish is as perfect, and it's interesting that the more outrageous combinations seem to work better for Antunes than simple pairings. Foie gras with mango was fine but didn't sing – the textures were too alike, the foie gras not salty or rich enough to pair well with the fruit.
But even the simple desserts are masterpieces. You will find one of the best crème brulees imaginable on the menu, and a recent special of roasted figs delivered an ideal end to the meal. If you're in the mood for a more extravagant finish, the millefeuille, flaky layers of chocolate pastry filled with luscious pistachio crème, is a delight.
Joël's head waiters are true professionals, both formal and friendly. But the support staff seems skittish and undertrained. The restaurant uses butter tasting of fresh sweet cream, which sets the meal off to an amazing start, but when I asked a young woman clearing our plates what kind it was, she said, "I'm not sure. He doesn't use regular butter, though!" In general, the staff is still finding the rhythm of the new dance it is performing in this space.
Joël still has what is arguably the best wine list in the city, not just in its breadth and depth but also in that it sports so many affordable and accessible bottles. It's rare to find a list that houses both two pages of magnums and many other bottles less than $40. Perrine Prieur has taken over as sommelier, and she is young, beautiful and French, but that's not why she irks me. She does need to watch her tendency to condescend. One night, as I looked over the list, she sashayed up to the table and cooed in an understanding tone, "I'm sorry the list is so long," which I took to mean, "You look like someone who would prefer to make a simple choice between house chardonnay or house merlot." I'm sure she was just trying to put me at ease, but her apology for her fantastic list had just the opposite effect, as did her trying to steer me toward Rieslings when I claimed to want a big French white.
I'm glad I stood my ground – this is food that deserves big French wines. Antunes has always been a man with big ideas, and in this new, ironically smaller space, the components seem to meld better than they did in the past. The lull is over; Joël is again living up to its well-deserved reputation.