In June, when Joel finally broke apart after a few years of ups and downs, revamps, redesigns, its namesake chef's departure and more, pieces of the lauded restaurant landed all over the place. The folks behind Muss & Turner's acquired the building, where they will soon open Local Three. Cyrille Holota, who had acted as the chef at Joel since Joel Antunes left in early 2008, was recently hired at French American Brasserie. Perrine Prieur, Joel's sommelier, has opened the adorable Perrine's Wine Shop on the Westside. And some of Joel landed at La Fourchette, the new restaurant located near the intersection of Piedmont and Peachtree roads that was most recently Agnes and Muriel's.
Pieces of Joel's décor — the terra cotta tile-inspired booths, the brown leather chairs, the earthy color scheme — show up at La Fourchette. The concise wine list, while not comprised of the leftovers of Joel's famously expansive selection, was put together by Prieur, who can often be seen breezing in and out of the restaurant. And the chef, 24-year-old Jeffrey Wall, is a former line cook at Joel.
It's a major leap for such a young chef from line cook to exec with no sous or chef de cuisine experience in between (he did work at Bacchanalia in the interim). Wall met La Fourchette's owners, Mounir Barhoumi and Salem Makhlouf, through a mutual friend, and says they chose him based solely on his vision of Mediterranean-influenced food with a focus on freshness. He never even cooked for them before he was hired.
If all of this sounds a little thrown together, La Fourchette tends to reflect that. Some of Wall's upscale, vaguely Mediterranean food tastes like it came from a talented, experienced chef. And some of it tastes a touch sophomoric.
The dude likes acid. Which works wonders for the jumble of farro and French beans under a lovely, melty slow-cooked salmon filet, the vinaigrette tang juxtaposing beautifully with the nutty grains and the fatty fish. The high notes of apple meet smoky trout and crumbly cracker on the trout tart appetizer — it plays like a supersized and sophisticated passed hors d'oeuvre. And salads are uniformly excellent, especially the tender endive with watercress, pecans and local goat cheese, ramped up with cider vinaigrette.
But there are issues when the foundation ingredients provide no natural foil to Wall's acid addiction. Short rib rillettes sound as though they should be a fatty, deep, meaty experience. They turned out to be a jar of tartly seasoned shredded short ribs and not much else — no depth to balance the tang. Butternut squash risotto, which appeared to feature regular rice rather than the standard, creamy Arborio, was all treble and no base.
All of this points to a chef who still has some learning to do. Wall's dishes are often full of nuance and whimsy, as with a grilled loup de mer with leeks, mussels in the shell, a saffron emulsion and "crispy fingerlings" — the fish resting on a bed of what amount to thick potato chips. The whole dish is a fun, dressed up and deconstructed classic fish stew.
Wall is self-taught in the pastry department, which speaks volumes about his potential in general. All the bread and pasta is made in house, from a fluffy ciabatta to the delicate skin of fresh cheese ravioli. And the Tunisian beignets (both owners are Tunisian) are possibly the best bites of food I had in all my visits to La Fourchette. The hot pillows of fried dough paired beautifully with a rich, velvety orange blossom honey ice cream.
Service is a problem, but not in that servers are inattentive or uneducated — quite the opposite. The already annoying trend of pointing out "some highlights of our menu" is taken to new heights here, with servers going over many items in agonizing detail. In one instance, a waiter read the entire 22-item menu to my party aloud, along with digressions for special and side items. Overeagerness often slipped into used-car salesman shtick or overbearing hovering. All this showboating is undoubtedly in the name of excellence, but La Fourchette's particular brand of excellence was downright excruciating at times.
There's a broken-apart-and-reassembled feel to La Fourchette, a sense that passionate but slightly inexperienced hands put the whole thing together. The emphasis on overly formal (and verbose) service; the skilled but often unbalanced cooking; the room that feels neither formal nor casual; the pieces of Joel décor that almost fit here but kind of don't — all of it comes together to create a lovable but slightly disjointed experience. I hope La Fourchette gets the time it needs to grow up a little — the adult version is likely to be grand.