The escargot at Jolie isn’t from around here.
It’s from Planet Earth, obviously. But it doesn’t taste like it’s from here—Raleigh, North Carolina, North America. It doesn’t taste like it was made in one of our kitchens, by one of our chefs, using our ingredients.
This plate of escargot tastes like it is from France. From the first nanosecond, its Frenchness was singingly and triumphantly clear, even though I haven’t been to France since I was four years old. Believe me—these snails are fluent en français.
If dining out counts as an escape for most people, then a “French restaurant” is still the most effective place to stage a meal-based exodus from daily life. French cooking spent the late 20th century quietly surviving a wilderness of shifting culinary trends and emerged into the 21st more beloved than ever among the gastronomically minded American chef and diner. It’s comfort food, but with roots that stretch back centuries, traversing empire and epoch. The food can be rich and hearty and luxurious, but also thoughtful, intellectual, with a suggestion of challenge and adventure.
And this is what Jolie accomplishes, with style and grace: the sense of wonder and joy behind the drilled application of technique and the resulting caloric onslaught that is French cooking.
It’s tricky to pinpoint what exactly imbues Jolie’s escargot—which is, in fact, made in one of our kitchens, by one of our chefs, using our ingredients—with such an assertive identity. The suspension in which the escargot find themselves swimming—a concoction of pulverized anchovies and garlic known as an achoiade—is certainly phenomenal. Maybe it’s just the sheer amount of butter infusing every morsel. Maybe it’s the gastropods themselves, briny and metallic and sweet, and unfailingly (at least to me) exotic.
More likely, this Gallic otherness is borne from the mise en scène, of which the setting is a vital component. Jolie is literally a corner bistro, nestled into an ever-more-fashionable stretch of Person Street in the Oakwood neighborhood. Inside, you find a narrow corridor in varying tones of off-white, subtly adorned with wood and burnished brass. A white marble bar and tabletops pull off the neat trick of being comfortable rather than clinical. Well-hidden soundproofing absorbs the voices of happy diners and allows the soundtrack—a decades-spanning melange of French pop—to cut through the din. It’s sexy, cozy, and inviting.
Jolie is the newest venture from chef-owner Scott Crawford, whose outstanding Crawford & Son can be found a few doors down the block. The vision for Jolie is certainly Crawford’s—the restaurant is named after his Francophile daughter—but he shares cooking duties with chef de cuisine and Raleigh native Madison Tessener. Tessener recently came home from gigs in Charleston and brought with her the easy finesse and appreciation for elegant decadence of that city’s best restaurants.
I begin with the mushroom tart, which tastes positively medieval, like something out of Le Viandier de Taillevent. A layer of molten brie binds a base of sweet pastry with a forest floor’s worth of wild mushrooms, glazed with sherry and scattered with herbs. The sweetness of the pastry is initially disorienting next with the deep fungal earthiness of the mushrooms, but the dish swiftly settles into profound rightness. Louis XIV probably tucked into something similar, although I’ll take the Jolie version, with its accompanying salad of mustardy mizuna greens. I don’t think they grew those at Versailles.
The beef bourguignon is similarly protean, here prepared with beef cheeks and fat little lardons. When I make beef bourguignon at home, its color can generously be described as “brown.” The Jolie version is a deep and tenebrous shade of chocolate, streaked with ruddy highlights from the namesake wine. It tastes, as one might imagine, like sex.
And it shines. It shines like mirror glaze, like suckling pig, like General Tso’s. Enrobed in glistening finery, the beef bourguignon is the most visually striking offering on a menu of beautifully plated creations.
Our table quickly fills with visual artistry. The potato chips that accompany the duck rillettes are something of a technical marvel: potatoes sliced into a vellum-thinness, then inlaid together and fried in duck fat. The resulting “chip”—really an enormous lacquered shard of crisp potato—is gorgeous, reminiscent of parquet floors or expert woodwork. Ours came out slightly burned and brought very little flavor beyond a lingering bitterness. The rillettes themselves, however, are light and airy, with a lemony tang and the satisfying crunch of hazelnuts. It’s a sophisticated approach to a rustic dish, and it ends up succeeding through ingredient minimalism.
Beyond the plane-ticket-on-a-plate that is the escargot, the best dish on Jolie’s menu is a simple bowl of mussels. If you come to Jolie hunting for rarer prey, you might overlook this ubiquitous bistro standard, as it sits humbly among the “Soupes et Salade.” Skipping this dish, however, would be a grave mistake.
The mussels are perfectly cooked, of course. They have the consistency of firm custard with the flavor of a seafaring marshmallow. But the ham broth in which the bivalves float is absolutely stupendous, bright and vivifying, bringing wave upon wave of smoke, salt, pork, and the essence of shellfish liqueur.
This broth is perfect, ladies and gentlemen, and a welcome nod to local traditions and foodways.
Let me close on a personal note. My first meal at Jolie coincided with the first moments that my wife and I had spent alone and out of the house since our second daughter was born in November. Taking full advantage of my employment-based requirement that I actually go out to eat, we plopped our children into their grandmother’s lap and peeled away from our Durham home like we were fleeing a tsunami. We sought a literal escape.
We took our time. We ordered enough food to cause our server considerable worry. We lingered over cocktails made with care and vermouth. We balanced the fat and sauce with an invigorating salad of citrus, pistou, and endive. We shared dessert, a caramelized apple gateau in a pond of crème anglaise. We drank dry Vouvray and enjoyed one another’s simple there-ness.
So maybe it’s the flush of romance talking. Maybe it’s the fact that I got to spend 150 minutes calmly regarding the beautiful face of the person I love most in the world, shielded from the furious demands of a toddler and an infant. Maybe it was the company that conjured the most potent spell.
But eating at Jolie certainly didn’t hurt. All good restaurants provide an escape. One that truly transports is a more precious find.
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