Being there

Pool tables and glitzy food make a joint the Joint

I recently read--and probably you did, too, admit it or not--that Joey, owner of Joey's, the unbearably hot spot on Oak Lawn, is presenting neckties to a "select" group of customers. If you are wearing your Joey's tie, which says "Joey's" in a bright design colored like the restaurant's dizzying decor, you're guaranteed a table when you show up at Joey's.

Some underworked public-relations person probably sold this idea to Joey, but it is not a new idea. At one time, this is what ties were used for: A particular pattern identified which school you attended, which clubs would let you in, which social class you belonged to. Ties helped to distinguish "us" from "them." In Dallas, though, we already use restaurants for that purpose, so the neckwear actually is superfluous.

Everyone knows that Dallas restaurants are less about food than they are about scene. Where you eat says everything about who you are, how well-known you are, and how well you're connected. How soon you're seen at the hot new spot is a mark of how high on the ladder you live, not how eager a palate you possess. The harder it is to get into a crowded restaurant, the more you have to prove it's easy for you. After all, these are the stripes in our tie and we want to make sure no one is wearing one like it.

So it was no surprise that as we left the Joint last weekend, we met a couple of people coming up the down staircase. "Don't you remember?" they asked owner Eric Kimmel. "I met you at a party the other night. You said..."

"Whatever," Kimmel said as he waved them past the people in the block-long line waiting for someone else to leave so they finally could enter the Joint.

These lucky line-breakers certainly had the right stripes in their ties, which at the Joint means they had connections to Kimmel, cool-boy of the '80s, the guy in charge. This is his joint. As he'll tell anyone who listens, and many who don't, he's had the idea for this place for a long time.

The question is, what idea? Technically, the Joint is a pool hall ("billiards parlor"--you'll be corrected by the staff) and I believe this is an idea we've seen before. What's unique about the high-gloss Joint is its finish, its polish, its attitude, and its food. And one of the three is not quite Kimmel's idea; it comes from the Joint's "Director of Food Operations," Avner Samuel.

Whatever you call it, the Joint is jumpin'. According to Avner, his kitchen turned out 800 plates Thursday night two weeks ago and I believe him. There's a two-hour wait to play at any of the eight pool tables, which are in use most of the day at $10 an hour, and the bar is crammed Thursday through Sunday. Everyone is young, black-clad, and seems to spend a lot of time at Larry North Total Fitness, but lots of people are there because of the kitchen. Avner, as anyone who follows food knows, has cooked at the Melrose Landmark, Yellow, Da Spot, Avner's, The Mansion, The Crescent--and those are only the ones I can remember. Despite all the moves, he's developed a following for his highly professional, visual way with food, though he still is just a teensy bit defensive about his peripatetic past.

"People keep asking me, 'Are you going to be around here for Hanukkah?'" he says. "But if you think about it, I've worked in five places in the past 15 years; that's an average of three years in each place." One way to look at it. Anyway, Avner, who doesn't want to discuss the degree of his involvement with the Joint because "of the legal aspects," is a crony of Kimmel's, and Avner's kitchen now is the one Kimmel originally envisioned turning out hamburgers, sandwiches, and breakfast-all-day for the cue crowd. It was never meant for lobster bisque.

But Avner merged the casual menu Kimmel had in mind with a list of best sellers, draped the tables in white, and raised the expectations.

So when we sat down to dinner we did order lobster bisque, smooth, deep-flavored and opaquely russet, topped with pale curly shreds of fried leeks; a salad of shredded green vegetables mixed with tiny, baby-pink strands of cured salmon and pickled ginger, and mallard duck confit dressed with Asian green in a black hoi sin sauce. And that was just to start. Well drinks are only four bucks, but if you want a glass of wine you only can choose generically: merlot, chardonnay, cabernet, white zinfandel, or champagne.

The regular menu lists sandwiches, pastas, mains, breakfast, greens, and starters, but the nightly specials are where Avner and his protege, James Leith, have their fun, and where you'll see more of the flash and glitz that Avner has offered in his past. This is where the duck confit and black hoi sin combo was listed, and it's typically Avner in its pairing of East and West, as was a special of New York strip, served precut crosswise with Chinese touches of black-mushroom sauce and long beans. Dancing Tasmanian lobster, a dish the well-traveled Avner has carried with him from several restaurants ago, features big chunks of lobster flesh in a Thai-scented stir fry of vegetables, over a potato pancake. You just can't get much more global than that, and it was the best thing we ate at the Joint, probably because Avner's Achilles heel is overworking the food; he's so familiar with this dish, he loosens up and lets the ingredients speak for themselves.

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