Birthday Eats (Joule/PiDGin)

Milk chocolate mousse with sesame and miso caramel.

Milk chocolate mousse with sesame and miso caramel.

On my birthday I can typically go one of two ways: either I want to spend it being completely low key with takeout from my favorite local gyro joint, or I want to use the occasion to try a reportedly fabulous and new (at least to me) restaurant. This year, it was the latter with a long overdue visit to Joule, run by husband and wife team Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, who cook modern Korean cuisine in a gorgeous and bright space in Wallingford. Joule’s been around since 2007 but moved to their current locale in 2012, when they also changed up their menu. They say change is good, and it holds true here because Joule made Bon Appetit’s Top 10 new restaurants in America this past year.

We had reservations at the slick white marble chef’s counter, and as soon as we were seated we started to peruse the cocktail menu. It was a beautiful evening with light streaming in through the glass storefront, and the Patti McGee drink sounded like the perfect potion to start things off with. It was a lovely concoction of pink peppercorn vodka, shiso, rhubarb and lemon – light and refreshing with a slightly spicy, earthy twist. I’m not completely sure how the ingredients of the cocktail fit in, but Patti McGee was the 1965 Woman’s First National Skateboard Champion, just in case you were wondering. Craig went in the opposite direction with his choice of Coughlin’s 3rd Law. This is a reference from the movie Cocktail, a film I’ve never seen so I’ve yet to figure out what the 3rd law is, but it proved to be a luxurious elixir of scotch, cynar, maraschino, and grapefruit bitters.

The dishes at Joule are meant to be shared, so we placed our faith in our server and ordered several of her recommendations. We started with the beef tartar, which was enlivened with Asian pear, pine nuts, and spicy cod roe aioli. It was simultaneously creamy, fresh, tart, and just a little spicy.  Next up was Tat Soi – Joule’s version of a spinach salad with a warm Chinese sausage vinaigrette and a smoked tea egg. The sausage, with its slightly caramelized edges, tasted like candy; the smoky egg, a little exotic. We followed that with Spicy Rice Cakes – a dish we’d seen come out of the kitchen more than any other, and we soon discovered why. The rice cakes are nothing like what you might imagine or expect. They are small disks; soft and chewy but with a crunch around the edges. Set against chorizo and pickled mustard greens, they leave just a slight sense of heat at the back of the mouth.

Roasted cauliflower with bonita flakes.

Roasted cauliflower with bonita flakes.

Cauliflower has never been one of my favorite vegetables, but it seems to be this year’s brussel sprouts and came highly recommended. We’d been watching this dish go out and were a little leery of the bonito flakes sprinkled on top as they’re an oh-so-stinky favorite treat of our cats, and it wasn’t particularly appealing watching the flakes writhe as they do on top of the hot cauliflower. We weren’t steered wrong, however. Served with a smoky yogurt, the cauliflower had a meaty texture which combined with the smoke and contrasted with mint and the tang of pickled onions to make for a fantastic dish.

At this point we were pretty full and could have comfortably ended the evening, but there was one final dish still to come: the Wagyu Bavette.  Joule was originally conceived as a Korean steakhouse, and while there is so much more than beef on the menu, their handful of beef dishes are considered their specialties. The bavette, with a truffled pine nut puree and whole radishes, was perfectly cooked and delicious even if it did push us over the edge.

Speaking of pushing edges, after hemming and hawing for several minutes about whether to order dessert or not, seeing that it was my birthday we ordered not one, but two, and I’m so glad we did. Joule’s (former) pastry chef, Laura Pyles, won Food & Wine’s best new pastry chef (West Region) in 2013. Even though she is no longer there, I figured there was a reputation to uphold. The first dessert was a milk chocolate mousse cake with sesame, miso caramel, and peanuts; light, delicate, and so interesting. It reminded me of eating sweets in Japan, which aren’t sweet at all in the American sense (i.e., chock full of sugar) which allows the non-sugary ingredients to take center stage with the sweetness acting only as an accent. The flavors were subtle and yet distinct, a little sweet while also savory.  In contrast, we had their signature Joule Box, filled with delicate, translucent tapioca pearls, ruby grapefruit brulee, and coconut. I’m so glad I’m willing to try things that I think I don’t like. Much like the cauliflower and bonito flakes, I didn’t think I liked tapioca. This is probably because I’ve never had Joule’s tapioca. The creaminess of it and the texture contrasted with the tart citrus and tropical coconut worked beautifully. It was pretty, light and refreshing and a satisfying ending to a perfect meal.

I loved everything I ate at Joule. All the dishes had a great balance and contrast of flavors and textures; subtle yet distinct and nicely presented. I loved the design of the space which was modern but still inviting, and was drenched with sunlight on a perfect Seattle evening. All of this leaves me declaring this as my personal favorite restaurant in Seattle right now and I can’t wait to get back. The hardest thing will be deciding whether to recreate this exact meal or try the menu items we didn’t get around to this first time.

Oyster shot with apple ice and horseradish.

Oyster shot with apple ice and horseradish.

May is kind of a celebratory month for us because it’s also Craig’s birthday. This year, we went to Vancouver, B.C., on his birthday weekend to see Mogwai, which was preceded with some decent, if not exceptional, Japanese tapas and sashimi at ShuRaku, conveniently located down the street from the Vogue Theatre.  We also went over to Granville Island for the first time and strolled through the public market. There was so much tempting food – pastries, fruit, cheese, fish, pasta – that I felt disappointed we already filled up at our hotel’s over-priced breakfast buffet. We vowed that next time we’re in Vancouver we will come back here hungry and eat our way through the market.

The main and much-anticipated dining event of the weekend was dinner at PiDGin, deemed one of the top ten best new restaurants in Canada last year by enRoute. Like Joule’s European-Korean fusion fare, PiDGin is not dissimilar but with a mostly Japanese accent brought by Chef Makoto Ono. Chef Ono is from Canada, where his parents opened the first sushi bar in his hometown of Winnipeg, so food and cooking are part of his DNA.

PiDGin is located in what seems to be a natural extension of historic, trendy Gastown, but is actually Downtown Eastside; an area the homeless call home, which has subjected the not-inexpensive restaurant to protests at their front door. While we had no trouble entering, we did get fairly aggressively confronted by a local resident upon leaving, but this study in contrasts goes hand-in-hand with all the dishes we had. For the record, the restaurant has said they are going to implement donation programs with proceeds going to local charities and residents. I think this is a great idea and hope they see this through.

PiDGin’s menu consists of shareable plates, and so many sounded good that their tasting menu seemed the perfect option to allow us to try several of them. The first dishes to arrive were the daily pickles, which included miso-infused cucumbers, beets, and eggplant, along with one of the highlights of the night: an oyster shot on a bed of creamy horseradish and topped with shaved apple ice. The hot-but-icy contrast with the silky oyster was delicious, and I could have made a meal of them. But then I would have missed out on everything else, like the gorgeously presented scallop sashimi dish with pomegranate, red curry oil, daikon, and green apple. Again, the contrast of the spice of the radish and the tartness of the apple against the fresh, creamy scallops was very successful and one of the prettiest dishes to look at.

Halibut with cauliflower puree and pine nut raisin agrodulce.

Halibut with cauliflower puree and pine nut raisin agrodulce.

The next dish was the special that evening: octopus mantle, cut like noodles and served chilled alongside warm kale in a lamb bacon vinaigrette. Individually, they were good; but the magic happened when you put both of them on your fork together for a contrast of temperature, texture, and flavor.  A vegetable dish of mushrooms, snap peas, and an egg (I’m pretty sure a tea-smoked egg like Joule) in a soy yuzu brown butter sauce followed. Simple, delicious, and pretty, it tasted like spring. This was followed by pan-roasted halibut with a cauliflower puree (see, cauliflower again) with a pine nut raisin agrodolce, an Italian sweet and sour sauce. The fish was like butter – and was probably cooked in a fair amount of it – but it melted in your mouth. Very fresh, perfectly tender, meaty, and flaky with a lovely crust.

By the time the final main course appeared, not surprisingly we were extremely full but not ready to give up. A platter of duck served three ways appeared on our table: sliced roasted breast, confit, and cracklings, accompanied with carrot cake batter with the wonderful aroma and taste of cinnamon and an orange glaze. It reminded us of Thanksgiving dinner and would be perfect on a cold, rainy winter night, so it seemed a little out of place based on the season but was delicious nonetheless.

At this point we’d made it to the finale: a dessert of meringue, passion fruit curd, almonds, white chocolate, and lime. Not too sweet, the refreshing tartness of the passion fruit complemented the entire meal.

The service at PiDGin, very informal and very friendly, was great. In fact, Craig and our server got into an in-depth discussion on football, as the Seattle Sounders were in town that day in a match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The only thing that was off was the pacing of the dishes. They came out a bit too quickly to allow us to fully savor each dish and then have a little breather before the next one arrived, which is so important for a multi-course meal. I never felt like they were trying to rush us out and turn our table, they just didn’t have the timing down.  We probably could have, and should have, asked to slow down the pace.

We did not set out to try these two restaurants as a comparison, but they do have several shared qualities. Besides playing European and Asian flavors and ingredients against one another, Joule and PiDGin carry out a trend of serving seasonal, artful, elegant, creative food in a modern, refined, yet casual space. The atmosphere is not stuffy or uncomfortable. You can dress up or dress down and just focus on food that is seriously good without taking itself too seriously. Both restaurants also use contrast in the food itself to their advantage. Whether focusing on texture, temperature, flavor, or all of the above, both restaurants have found that not only do opposites attract, but when thoughtfully paired they can also bring out the best in one another.

(Click on a pic to embiggen and view the full gallery. You can also view these photos on our Flickr Photostream.)
  • Mark Gleave

    Wow! I think it was definitely a mistake reading this post on an empty stomach, now I am absolutely famished. Great descriptions and some impressive photos.

    • kim

      Glad you enjoyed, Mark. I can’t wait to get back to both restaurants and recommend you do the same!

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