By Leigh Pressley
Photos by Richard Rudisill
The flipping knives, flaming grills and practical jokes that make up the pre-meal show at Japanese steak houses dont appeal to everyone. And while the sizzling shrimp, steak and chicken poured over fried rice and vegetables is often tasty and filling, a lot of people dont like sitting with strangers or watching the same routine again and again.
Now theres a laid-back, low-key, locals-in-the-know place that offers hibachi food, in addition to an extensive selection of sushi, Asian grill entrees and tempura dishes.
Joels, on Depot Street a block off Main in downtown Davidson, opened in February 2002 as a campus-convenient annex to Kobe Japanese steak house in Cornelius. Former Kobe manager Joel Jose later bought and renamed the restaurant that now draws everyone from the tattooed to the tenured.
Jose, a native of the Philippines who has lived in the United States for 12 years, loves the college-town community.
Its very vibrant, he says. I get attached to the college students, and every time a senior class graduates, its like a son or daughter leaving. But the demographics change every day. We get students, professors, out-of-town visitors, alumni, families scouting the college and people from all over the lake, Charlotte and Statesville. I even had a person come all the way from Western North Carolina who heard about it from a guy from Philadelphia that he met in Myrtle Beach. That is so weird, man.
Joels wait staff is quick and efficient, but Jose sets the place apart with his bright smile, pats on the back and friendly comments.
Hes also the guy behind the eclectic interior, which features pumpkin-colored walls, samurai swords, a copper lobster sculpture, Filipino art, crayon drawings by local kids and a SpongeBob SquarePants doll sitting on the sofa.
A few knickknacks here and there makes it fun and interesting, he says with a laugh. I want it to be a lively and more personalized atmosphere.
Joels Pan Asian menu includes a little something for everybody, too, from 95 types of delicate and artfully presented sushi to delicious four-course hibachi meals to tempura to Asian grills.
We have a good variety of noodle entrees, a lot of vegetarian dishes, a lot of tofu dishes, six or seven kinds of soup and a range of appetizers, too, Jose says. Its mostly Pan Asian, a variety of Asian catered to American tastes. If you try to sell things people can get two or three miles away from where they live, why would they come to you? We try to find a way to get people to drive to us.
Sushi is a big draw at Joels, which serves 31 types of sushi rolls, 18 types of cooked nigiri or raw sashimi, seven sushi salads, nine platters and two bento boxes. The Gourmet Sushi menu, designed by guest sushi chefs from across the country and from Joels culinary team, lists 10 appetizers and 14 sushi rolls.
One of the best is Red Snapper Nirvana ($7.95), a California roll with crab and avocado topped with slices of red snapper and baked to perfection. The Motown Roll ($9.95), another creative combination, features pork barbecue.
The Red Snapper Nirvana came from a sushi chef from Miami, and the Motown Roll came from a sushi chef from Detroit, Jose says. In the past few years, Ive had four or five sushi chefs from across the country stay a week or two to teach us new things in the marketplace.
If we cant go out there and visit every new restaurant, I bring them to us. Now people come back just for those different styles of sushi that they cant find anywhere else at Lake Norman.
Joels even has dessert sushi, the Palate Refresher ($4.95), with kiwi and mango, topped with thin slices of strawberry and covered in sweet milk.
More conservative diners also find plenty to eat at Joels, with an entire menu of appetizers, soups, salads, Japanese steak house dinners, Asian grill entrees, rice dishes and tempura.
Popular appetizers include Filipino dishes such as Mama Lings Deep Fried Veggie Egg Rolls ($4.95) and Lemon Grass Veggie Spring Rolls ($4.95). There are also health-conscious selections such as tofu kabob ($5.95) or sautéed zucchini and onions ($2.50), traditional items like jumbo shrimp ($3 for two, $6.95 for six) and American favorites including fried calamari ($5.95) and wings ($5.95) served Oriental, buffalo, teriyaki, mild, medium and hot.
Asian grill entrees include Chicken & Shitake Mushroom Lettuce Wraps ($9.95), a concept familiar to those who frequent Chinese restaurants.
People say theyre like the ones at P.F. Changs China Bistro, Jose says. But we make ours a little bit different. Theyre tasty.
The Asian grill section also has many healthy seafood choices, including steamed flounder, steamed red snapper and steamed tilapia (each $13.95) served with ginger soy, steamed rice, sautéed vegetables and soup. Grilled pork, chicken and tofu (each $8.95) are prepared with bell peppers and sweet corn and served with hummus and flat bread.
The non-carb conscious may opt for one of five noodle dishes, from the traditional Lo Mein Pansit Noodle ($8.95) to the eclectic combination of Shanghai Noodles in Orange Sauce ($9.95) with a sauce that combines fruity flavors, sesame oil and spices.
If youre hungry, go for a Japanese Steakhouse Dinner ($9.95 to $20.95), which includes soup, salad, appetizer, fried rice and a choice of filet mignon, chicken, sautéed vegetables, rib eye, flounder, shrimp, lobster, salmon or scallops.
We do the same hibachi grill meals as Japanese steak houses; we just dont cook it right in front of the customer, Jose says. A lot of people like that better because they dont have to wait for the table to fill up, they dont have to sit with strangers and they dont get smoke on their clothes and in their hair. Im not knocking that; its just an observation.
Lightly breaded and fried tempura dishes ($6.95 to $10.95) are available in shrimp, chicken, vegetables, softshell crab, white fish and a combination of fish or shrimp with vegetables.
Theyre not as breaded as most places, and we have a wider variety, Jose says. The kids love tempura dishes. Youll see them frowning and pouting, but if you put SpongeBob beside them and bring them chicken fingers another name for chicken tempura they like it.
As Americas ethnic fabric changes to include more nationalities, Jose says, the concept of what American food means changes, too.
We serve traditional Japanese, but also Americanized versions of those dishes, he says. For a lot of people, Japanese steak house food and sushi have become a comfort food, just like tacos. America is slowly redesigning its cuisine. Look at me Im a Filipino guy with a Jewish first name, a Spanish last name serving Japanese sushi. Only in Davidson.
Address: 101 Depot St., Davidson.
Contacts: (704) 896-6739, www.joelsgrill.com.
Hours: Lunch served 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner served 5-9:30 p.m. nightly.
Prices: Appetizers from $2.50 to $7.95; salads from $2 to $5.50; soups from $2.95 to $12.95; entrees from $6.95 to $29.95; sushi from $3.25 to $18.95; side dishes from $2 to $7.95; desserts from $1.95 to $4.95.
Seating: 60, plus patio seating for 16.