Joli Kobe Kitchen has a strong voice

JOLI KOBE KITCHEN

5600 Roswell Road N.E., Sandy Springs

3 of 5 stars

The Prado shopping center in Sandy Springs has grown by leaps and brand-name megastores. Target, Life Time Fitness, Staples and the like now require a parking deck to accommodate the influx of business.

Restaurants buoy the shopping district’s nightlife with diners crowded around the entrance to 5 Seasons Brewing Co. and spilling from the big-screen-dominated patio at Taco Mac. These two restaurants flank each end of the strip with a quiet old-timer anchoring the center.

Joli Kobe Kitchen, which began as Joli Kobe in 1985 as a bakery-bistro in the tradition of French-Japanese bakeries in Tokyo, sits with its sister restaurant, Kobe Steaks, in between its two boisterous neighbors. And soft-spoken though it may be by comparison, its cuisine rings out with a strong and clear voice — one that catches my ear.

In February, the restaurant rebranded as Joli Kobe Kitchen and moved closer to a fine dining format complete with a thoughtful sake and wine list. It brought in chef Mihoko Obunai, a classically French-trained Japanese chef. Obunai’s ever-changing menu is seasonally focused and reflects her training as a certified macrobiotic chef.

Loyal Joli Kobe customers can still get a few of the standards from the former menu, like the curry chicken salad over greens with ginger dressing. You’ll have to ask for that menu. Just don’t. I loved that salad as much as you, but you really need to hear Obunai’s music.

Chef Obunai concedes that others warned her to make changes slowly, but she laughs, “I’m not a patient person.” You’ll immediately see her stamp on what the restaurant calls new American cuisine with French and Japanese influences.

Yet, she has her own way of easing customers into the new fine dining format. With a lunch menu made up of sandwiches, noodles and plates, Obunai begins to introduce items in a familiar format that will also appear on the dinner menu in different form.

Take the James River oysters coated with a crackling potato-starch batter. At lunch, they come tucked into a spicy sandwich ($10) with pickled jalapenos and remoulade on a sweet, butter-scented pan de mie. And at dinner, those plump oysters may play off of well-salted arugula and ginger-spiced tahini sauce ($14).

The format of the dinner menu may present a challenge for some. Unlike the lunch menu, there are no categories or delineations, just a list of eight or so items ranging from soup to hanger steak. Servers may be of little or no help in advising you about how many items to order. Just ask for a couple of forks and order four to five dishes per couple. As the plates increase in price, they also increase in size.

The menu changes daily, but you’ll see a handful of items shuffled around with new complements. The citrusy yuzu vinaigrette appears often, sometimes on salads or over a play-on-textures assemblage of grilled asparagus, bulgur beads, creamy fromage blanc and a silky slow cooked egg ($10).

The tangy vinaigrette provides a light backdrop and Asian flair to the Enchanted Mountain trout, which is first applewood-smoked and then seared with a length of crispy skin perched perpendicularly ($15).

Despite the combination, each of Obunai’s dishes share clean flavors, balance and richness without the fatty funk. This is the case with the yellow carrot and ginger bisque ($7), which is smooth and light with a decided creamless creaminess.

The same holds true for Obunai’s tonkotsu ramen ($15), learned in New York and honed at Miso Izakaya. The buttery pork-based broth, so clean on the palate, continues to unfold with deepening flavors. The ramen may come studded with ground pork or luscious braised pork shoulder pitted against tangy kimchee or bittersweet greens.

The ramen is just one of a number of must-have dishes at Joli Kobe Kitchen. The list grows with each item ordered like the citrus-marinated hanger steak ($18) so tender it needs no knife or the smoky beef belly ($14).

Oh, the beef belly, the stuff my dreams are made of. Obunai braises the belly, presses it overnight and then cold-smokes it for a product reminiscent of smoky bacon. She pairs it with a crispy mixture of fried kale, Swiss chard and collards seasoned with that tangy yuzu vinaigrette.

While you may be new to Obunai’s crafty creations, you may be familiar with the pastries at the bakery. After a meal in the bistro, you’ll still need to walk to the bakery side to make your selection from the glass cases bearing eclairs, Napoleons and macarons. Big mistake. Once you spy the case, you’ll likely order more than your share.

It was serendipity. When the restaurant found Obunai, who could so easily slide into a role requiring a strong foundation in both French and Japanese cuisine, the universe smiled upon Joli Kobe Kitchen — and thereby on us.

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