"Red Snapper Nirvana" at Joel's Asian Grill. Gayle Shomer/staff
Joel's redefines the word 'eclectic' - - - RATING *** (THREE STARS OUT OF FOUR)
The Charlotte Observer
Published: Friday, August 22, 2003
Eclectic is as eclectic does.
Put pan-Asian fusion, sushi and a tofu Waldorf salad in a dining room where SpongeBob SquarePants figures in the decor and you've earned the word. Joel Jose's little restaurant does just that - perfect for Davidson, where it draws diners from the college and community, as well as prospective students' families from all over the country, says Jose (who's Filipino, by the way).
Eclectic is as eclectic does
Entree Prices: Lunch $5.50-$11.50, dinner more.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. nightly.
Credit Cards: MC, VI, AE, DI.
Reservations: Not taken
Notes: Seats about 60 inside, 20 outside under canopy. Smoking allowed only outside, kids menu $6-$13. Some catering and delivery available. Parking is street-side and behind the restaurant.
He's devised a menu with the long-term aim of "a sushi/tapas concept where people order small nibbles of stuff." But Japanese steakhouse-style entrees, tempura dishes and an assortment of full dinners in that fusion style form the base of the current menu, bolstered by a wide-ranging list of appetizers before you hit the voluminous sushi lineup.
This is fun stuff, presented with humor and detail. Each sushi roll of nearly four dozen is described, some more extensively than others. Red Snapper Nirvana, for instance, is "crab, avocado, rolled inside out and topped with thin slices of red snapper and baked to perfection." The cucumber roll, on the other hand, is "err.....CUCUMBER."
That Nirvana roll is pretty heavenly, an interesting blend of texture and temperature. Consultant Mark Rivera created it, among about 20 other sushi specialties. Incoming chef Jeremy Vermulen hails from Canada with time in at the California Sushi Academy, and he'll add to both sushi and entree selections.
Jose has changed the menu half a dozen times since opening last February. Managing a Kobe Japanese steakhouse in Cornelius led to him managing this location, meant as a Kobe annex; he says he's now buying it. He was known as "the back rub guy" at Kobe, and walks this dining room cajoling, joking and patting in the same familiar, friendly style.
Most popular now are the steakhouse entrees, says Jose: filet mignon, chicken, flounder, salmon and shellfish grilled and served with soup, salad, vegetables, rice and an appetizer. Beware "sesame chicken," which is a lovely dish of sauteed chicken and sesame, not the breaded and deep-fried version most people think of with that name. We had a nicely done filet with creamy shiitake mushroom sauce as a daily special, as well.
"Sizzzling" garlic beef, from the Asian grill portion of the menu, fared even better, and Shanghai noodles in orange sauce - a sweet vegetarian dish - better still. Sumatra curried seafood - scallops, shrimp and crab, with calamari and tuna subbing for the menu's promised mussels, all in a coconut-curry cream - was best of all. Tuna sashimi pizza and mushroom burgers (along with veggie egg rolls, tofu kabobs and vegetarian Caesar and Waldorf salads) will excite vegetarians.
But sushi still won the day, from that Nirvana to a yellowtail tuna spring roll, with spinach and daikon in rice paper, presented asymmetrically with a mildly spicy vinaigrette. Creative combinations make the best of a fairly short list of seafood.
And consider the dessert menu before your meal: It's extensive, from the Filipino bananas wrapped in egg roll wrappers and fried, to flan with jackfruit to cheesecake disguising itself as a maki roll, deliciously. Green tea ice cream's a bit grainy, but sweet rice cake's a keeper.
Joel's walls interrupt rusty orange with a green chair rail, where they're not brick or window; knick-knacks include characters from SpongeBob tucked into a metal lobster sculpture and lit-up stars in the tree at the restaurant's corner outside. Every sort from gray-haired couples to students to young parents with babies pull curvy chairs up to cafe-type tables. We counted three hair colors not from nature in the same hour as a table of police and an old guy reading a book at the sushi bar. Eclectic lives.