Restaurant Review - Star attraction

Slow cooking and fast-track flavors give Joel a hot start

There's a war on. But anyone entering Joel on a recent Tuesday night might not know it. The 128-seat dining room — banquettes in checkerboard leather, red glass tiles, dynamite fabrics, floor-to-ceiling windows — is near capacity, humming with satisfaction. The crowd — designer clothes, real jewelry, big tans, great hair — seems made up of those wealthy worthies who once treated Pano's & Paul's as the neighborhood hangout. The staff — dark suits on managers, snappy gray smocks on servers, knowing smiles on all — snaps to attention whenever a customer makes a move.

The war is twofold. There's America's campaign against world terrorism, of course. But at Joel, there's also the parochial battle to become deb of the year. In the latter crusade, Joel, which opened Oct. 10, appears to be winning.

Joel's hot start isn't hard to figure. The restaurant is a publicity magnet for a very up-market, mixed-use development. The spare, modern design by Johnson Studios (Canoe, Nava, BluePointe) makes the most of a 16-foot ceiling, cruciform layout and generous budget. The menu and the international wine list are ambitious and engaging. Owner/chef Joel Antunes has worked his way up from his grandmother's kitchen in France through the Hotel Negresco in Nice, Paul Bocuse in Lyons, Troisgros in Roanne, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok to, most recently, the Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

When he succeeded Guenter Seeger as chef at the traditionally focused Buckhead Ritz, Antunes seemed intent on creating a culinary ruckus, perhaps hoping to gain attention as the town's new bad boy. The result, despite occasional triumphs, was an increasingly inconsistent mix of over-complicated fusion dishes, Seeger-like mini-portions balanced on slabs of tinted glass and hotel- continental heaviness. Though it might have played in Monte Carlo, it never quite worked here.

The new stand, conceived as a luxurious brasserie, is a much better marriage of chef, ambience and audience. Then and now, Antunes' food is rich, sometimes even heavy. The difference is that brasserie food, by definition, is supposed to be relatively simple but also substantial and plentiful. Tons of butter, cream, organ meats and thousand-layer pastries are the norm, and expected. For better or for worse, Atlanta's cholesterol-loving upper crust will take red meat and foie gras over steamed fish nine times out of 10. At Joel we get just that — with lemongrass.

Antunes' sauteed veal sweetbreads, for instance, are braised with veal cheeks, spiced apple batons and shaved cauliflower in an Asian-accented reduction sauce. The entree is served without pretense in a dark cocotte. This perfectly balanced East-West treatment gives the sweetbreads and fork-tender cheeks an unexpected, entirely new dimension ($24.95). Bouillabaisse with turbot, black bass, shrimp, mussels, croutons, saffron and fingerling potatoes, which is also served en cocotte, is thicker than typical French examples, as if slowly concentrated rather than quickly boiled. The play of flavors and textures is authoritative and appealing ($24.50). Vegetable side dishes are sold separately at dinner. Potato puree was somewhat overworked, thus slightly pasty. Next time I'll try white beans with red pepper and garlic (both $4.95).

Thai-style coconut soup with shrimp, lemongrass and mushrooms tops all local competition in suavity and price ($9.25). House-made tomato ravioli in a mildly contrasting tomato sauce set off by zucchini, artichoke heart, thyme and shaved hard cheese, melds several similar flavors into a finely tuned caprice ($11.95). Mille-feuille (thousand leaves) pastry with whiskey cream and caramel ice cream sings a comparable song in a different key ($8.75).

While dinner is served a la carte, lunch is priced by the course, with four choices in each. An entree by itself is $16.95, two courses $23.95, three for $29.95. The yeasty, crusty rolls and crock of sweet butter offered at both meals are worth a trip across town. Note also that Joel patisserie, a separate bakery and take-out shop down a long hall from the restaurant, offers salads, sandwiches and snacks as well as pastry chef Philippe Givre's breads, eclairs, madeleines, cakes and cookies. I took home a curried chicken feuillete ($2.95, and best reheated in a standard oven, not the microwave) and a large slice of apple tart ($4). Both were superb.

I bought those after sharing lunch with a colleague. Skipping appetizers, we split roast lamb tenderloin with carrots, preserved lemon and curry-flavored panisse (chickpea-flour sticks) and a dainty trio of duck-stuffed cannelloni in thyme-scented sauce with carrots, leeks, tomato and shaved cheese. Again, the varied flavors and seasonings were so skillfully balanced that each succeeding bite seemed better than the last. There may be no better duck dish in Atlanta. A tiny lemon meringue tart was a model of its kind, tart-sweet and dense, while a chocolate eclair stuffed with chocolate pastry cream was but a degree or two less exemplary.

Carps? Very few. The tile-floored Siberia section at the streetside end of the restaurant is quiet but cold, at least at night. Heaters placed at ankle level might ward off frostbite. Servers need to know that glasses need not be topped off every 40 seconds. It feels pushy and nervous, not welcoming. Food prices seem high. Tasty decor, numerous staff and what's said to be a very fancy kitchen perhaps account for that.

No matter. At the moment, for anyone interested in fine dining, Joel shouldn't be missed.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hot mail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.??