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Slice of heaven

There's more to Joli Kobe than just the bakery

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Suppose when we die, our spirits are shepherded to an interim, restaurant-esque locale where we sit and relax, waiting for the Powers That Be to let us know what happens next (yes, I've been watching way too much "Six Feet Under"). It would be someplace bright and serene, I imagine, where you could chat amiably with other recently departed souls, mulling over the possibilities of the afterlife. Someplace entirely unlike the blaring, bustling hot spots that thrive in the center of urban sprawl. Someplace, instead, like the new dining room at Joli Kobe.

Every time I enter this space, I'm surprised a fountain isn't trickling in the background. It's the only tranquil touch missing. Rich, earthy floor tiles resemble tree branches in autumn. Sunlight percolates through the clean lines of glass walls. A celery-colored bar melds with a backdrop of bricks painted sea foam green. For folks with frazzled nerves, it's downright paradisiacal in here.

Open since late December, the placid dining room is but one outcome of a yearlong renovation of Joli Kobe, a Japanese-French bakery-sandwich shop with a deserved cult following. The exquisite array of pastries and breads has returned, better than ever, but we'll get to those in a minute.

Lunch is a busy time for the restaurant. Its central Roswell Road location on the edge of Sandy Springs makes it a halfway point for Buckhead biddies and Dunwoody housewives to convene from their respective stomping grounds. The kitchen accommodates mesdames with such light repasts as run-of-the-mill chicken Caesar ($8) and a retro-Cali shrimp and avocado salad ($9.50), fluffed with mayo and yogurt. It's plopped in an avocado half and served over greens with a white drizzle of wasabi dressing that has absolutely zero punch.

Fortunately, there are more absorbing choices for those of us not inclined to such prim fare. The curry chicken sandwich, with its spryly spiced dressing and its almond crunch, is a Joli Kobe classic worthy of its stature ($7). Try it on a scrumptious baguette. My God, the bread is good here, particularly the pecan variety, which has such a depth of flavor that, biting into a concoction of roast chicken and bacon ($8), I imagine my mouth growing to cartoonishly gargantuan proportions so I can wolf the thing down in two bites.

Highest kudos go to dishes with heavy Japanese influence. I'm particularly enamored with the two rice numbers, which servers bring to the table covered so they can remove the porcelain lid with an old-timey flourish. "Omu-rice" ($8.50) combines tomatoey rice with bits of chicken and a sheer, elegant omelet on top. Comfort food, Asian style. A succinct Japanese-French hybrid called "hayashi-rice" is a tight, perfectly round mold of sticky rice with a rich, saucy stew of beef tips and onions in its center ($10).

Dinner, which has yet to be discovered by the masses but deserves more traffic, follows a similar path. Sure, you can play it safe with a decent garden salad ($5) or bruschetta with mushrooms ($6.50), but there are far more adventurous alternatives to be had. "Panko-Yaki" finds red mullet (the poor fish whose name will forever be synonymous with the most ergonomically unattractive haircut ever conceived) breaded with fine Japanese breadcrumbs, fried and served in a gentle tomato sauce ($8). It's with this kind of simple yet uncommon dish that the kitchen most excels.

Beef carpaccio with sesame pesto ($9) sounds like a cool idea, but it turns out to be translucent slices of beef floating in sesame oil. Coming up with an actual variation of pesto, similar to the silken edamame puree with which the grilled salmon ($16.50) is paired, would be a far more appealing approach.

The entree list is a rather ungrounded hodge-podge of ideas pulled from all over the culinary map. An odd, breaded pork chop reminiscent of country-fried chicken ($15.50) shares the landscape with competent paella ($25) and filet mignon with bearnaise and mushroom sauces ($22). A long list of pastas -- ranging from vegetable lasagna (really the only half-interesting choice for vegetarians) to a creamy, semi-dreamy gratin of shrimp, mushroom and macaroni ($15) -- doesn't get the pulse racing. Stick to the meatier main courses for now.

Right then, let's get to the good stuff: those pastries. Francois Collet, formerly of the Buckhead Bread Co., is the confectionary artist in residence. Though the strawberry-rhubarb compote with meringues and the frozen profiteroles from the bistro dessert menu ($6 each) are both lovely, the goodies arranged in the bakery cases are the heart and soul of this operation.

And it's not a secret. Folks from all over town come to pick up almond croissants, grab a tuna sandwich on the fly or to order strawberry shortcake for a birthday party. This is one of those rare, blessed places where all those little creations taste as good as they look: boozy baba au rhum, chewy macaroons, ethereal brioche filled with vanilla pasty cream, intense pear tart with almond paste and a dense crust. I made a pastry run and brought my spoils back to CL headquarters. The office vultures and I polished off two boxes in five minutes flat. They're that good.

The final analysis? The year's wait was worth it. Sit yourself down in the peaceful bistro, order a simple meal and save lots of room for dessert. You'll think you've died and gone to the Sweet By and By.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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