Being there

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.

We've worked in the same town too long for this to be an anonymous review, and Avner greeted us at the door when we visited the Joint on a weeknight, when the place was pleasantly less crowded, and you could appreciate the crape-myrtle view from the big windows. We tried Avner's novelty Caesar, mildly dressed but topped with fried whole anchovies and his fairly straightforward version of a burger--very good, the thick beef patty medium rare, topped with cheese and a kind of salad of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and mayonnaise. It came with excellent, American-cut French fries, and the success of this simple plate really made me want to try the tuna melt. Another pleasing gimmick-free plate was the very simple pasta with plum-tomato sauce, seasoned liberally with fresh Italian parsley, its clean sharp flavor rousing the whole dish. Fried demiboned chicken breast was crusted in cornmeal and drizzled with coriander oil. I could have dispensed with the oil, but this fowl really tasted like chicken, making it a rare bird these days.

Eric Kimmel and Avner Samuel make a pretty pair at the Joint, nicely matching the decor, Eric with his newly shorn bleached head, and Avner still black-haired at 40. The place is finished out in blond wood with black accents, with harlequin-painted walls and harlot-painted bathrooms. Apart from that, the place looks like a bank lobby, all plate glass and stone. Around the ceiling are different definitions of "joint": "a large piece of meat for roasting"; "joindre, from the Old French, "unite"; "a disreputable place of entertainment." There are some definitions of joint it doesn't mention, according to my dictionary. (Certainly Webster has never heard of the signature appetizer, "legal joint sticks," long tubes of rice-paper wrapper enclosing a tasteless, and occasionally, it seems, invisible, scallop mousse.)

Why is this the kind of place Dallas loves to love? It's the least likely to inspire any kind of loyalty. But as I've said before, Dallasites love great restaurants--as long as everyone else does. After that, they're not great, right? Avner's reasonably cautious--of his 17 years as a professional chef, he's spent 15 in Dallas. "Six [restaurants] open and seven close in one month," he says. "People are so fickle here, and we're all going for the same customers." Restaurants are a tough way to make a living.

Which brings us, naturally, to the question, where did the money come from? because it seems very unlikely that either of these guys could bankroll a place this swank. And there are those in Dallas who remember Haute magazine and other things from the duo's dappled past. In one conversation with Avner, he let me know the "main guys" in Kansas City own a bunch of Hooters in the Midwest, so of course they plan to take the Joint national. And that explains the wait staff's attire, too. The waitresses and waiters all look like they had their choice: They could be understudies for Friends or take a job at the Joint. They wear short skirts and show their midriffs if they're girls, and both sexes wear tags with their names and their future professions on them. Our first waiter's tag labeled his future job "world travel," by which he really meant "world traveler," and Shelley, our waitress another evening, wore a tag reading "speech pathologist" even though, she says, she's changed her major to public relations. Maybe that means the Joint will have its own ties someday.

The Joint, 2727 Cedar Springs, 754-0101. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
The Joint:
Lobster Bisque with Crispy Leeks $5
Mallard Duck Confit on Asian Greens and Hot Black Hoi Sin Sauce $7.75

Dancing Tasmanian Lobster on Potato Fennel Hash and Spiced Lemon-Butter Sauce $15.75

Joint Burger $6.25
Tuna Melt $5.75


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