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Ashley Christensen expands her empire with Joule Coffee

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A joule (J) is a unit of energy, work or amount of heat released when work is done or energy is expended. Wikipedia helpfully explains that one joule represents approximately "the energy required to lift a small apple vertically through one meter."

Joule Coffee is a fitting name for the newest Ashley Christensen project: a Wilmington Street cafe with a muted, modern, European feel, from the brown-and-white painted wood paneling to the chrome furniture, copper ceiling and exposed ductwork. More of a restaurant than a lounge, Joule sells coffees (courtesy of Durham's Counter Culture Coffee) that are strong enough to propel you, jittering, through the challenges of everyday life.

Joule's seasonally rotating coffee list is impressive, intimidating even. "'Tis the season," the menu reads "for fresh coffee from Africa." It's true, they have several brews from Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee, apparently) as well as from Kenya, Mexico and South and Central America. You can order drip coffee, or baristas use the pour-over method that aficionados say makes coffee taste more fresh and flavorful.

Being cheap, I've subsisted happily on instant coffee for years, so at Joule, I kept it simple with an iced pour-over coffee on one occasion and a drip coffee on the second. The iced coffee was the Banko Gotti Natural Sundried, an Ethiopian blend that tasted a touch fruity; the drip on rotation was the Colombian La Golondrina. I was happy to get La Golondrina, as the description—"smooth like melted caramel, with natural sweetness to match"—sounded delicious.

Both coffees were slightly acidic but rich and tasty, and strong enough to fuel the lifting of small apples for days. Those with a more distinguished palate (and the fortitude for copious caffeine) won't be disappointed.

If, like me, you're more of a tea person, try Sencha Sakura, the closest to authentic Japanese green tea I've found in Raleigh. Lightly flavored with cherry blossoms, the big glass of tea is delicious and revitalizing. The Moonlight White, "a floral white tea with notes of honey," is also refreshing.

By all means you should order food at Joule, and don't be afraid to dine alone. Two long rows of seats line the windows at the front of the shop, perfect for people-watching.

You can't go wrong in the early hours with fluffy, buttery croissants or crumbly, powdered-sugar-dusted black currant scones. If you're looking for heavier fare, try such options as Cheshire pig sausage and gravy, smoked salmon, croissant French toast, eggs and grits.

I have it on good authority that the Heirloom Tomato BLT is something to write home about, and I overheard a diner tell his server how much he enjoyed his Peppered Chicken Club. I ordered the Field Pea Hummus sandwich, which is a creative take on the traditional grilled cheese. Chunks of spicy eggplant are lathered with creamy goat's milk "fromage blanc," sharp hummus and a spicy red sauce. It's an explosion of fresh flavors crammed between two crunchy slices of grilled sourdough bread, and I recommend it highly.

On a subsequent visit, I ordered the Joule Cobb salad with a cup of tomato bisque. The salad is a mountain of mixed lettuces, piled high with avocado, crumbled hard egg, bacon, charred onion, snap peas and blue cheese, all doused in light and tangy Champagne vinaigrette. The tomato bisque was smoky and very thick—and filling.

The all-day menu is served until closing time at 10 (my server said Joule may expand the menu to include proper dinner entrées), so if you go in around dinnertime and are not vegetarian, you might try the red curry-braised Cheshire pork shoulder on a baguette, or the braised short rib on sourdough. Having mastered burgers and fried chicken biscuits, pork sandwiches are the clear addition to Christensen's culinary repertoire, and these, accessorized with cucumber slaw, North Carolina peanuts and Dijon aioli, do sound enticing.

Joule also has an impressive beer and wine list. You can get a domestic bottle (or can) of beer (even Stroh's) for $2 or $24, or somewhere between, and there's a German pilsner for $6. Glasses of red, white, rosé and sparkling European and South African wines are reasonably priced between $6 and $10; bottles hover in the low-$30 range.

Cocktails can be bought by the pitcher. Manager Anna Utevsky says Joule is "experimenting with frozen variations of classic cocktails," such as the Negroni. The health-conscious can imbibe in a forthcoming carrot margarita—carrot juice blended with tequila—while a selection of vermouths and garnished aperitifs remain popular.

A versatile venture, Joule's 1 newton-meter coffee is a welcome addition to downtown.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A crown Joule."

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