Joined by a fellow Atlanta foodie and blogger, lunch yesterday took us to the new as new can be Joia Restaurant & Lounge. Occupying the Crescent Ave corner spot that formerly housed Saga, Joia has opened with problems on top of problems. In fact, there are so many problems with this place that even the smallest failures seem acute. Meanwhile, I don’t see anything hiding in the back that leads me to believe there is much hope for this place … but I’ve been wrong before.
For those ready to jump down my throat, please keep in mind a few formidable facts. For one, this restaurant is the brain child of Marco Betti of Antica Posta. When an experienced restaurateur opens, I’m not as inclined to accept failures that are passable for new kids on the block. Betti knows the restaurant business and knows what it takes to open an establishment. Second, the price point goes a long way in justifying the expectations. With smaller portions AND a high price point, Joia is looking for something elevated. Third, the menu at least intimates that they want to sap some business from nearby Pacci, La Pietra Cucina, and the like. If that wasn’t the case, then my thinking cap might be a little more forgiving. All this can be said simply: if you are willing to open and take my money, be ready to do something right.
The judgment here has been swift and unfiltered. The majority of our lunch chatter was an exchange of one liners that could properly communicate just how bad things were. Ultimately, it appears that there was truth in it all. From the decor, to the service, up to and including the food, problems abound.
The restaurants website identifies Betti’s goal: “The concept behind joia [sic] restaurant & lounge is to have a restaurant offering great food at reasonable prices along with a lounge and DJ music later on in the night at weekends so you can dine and dance the night away.” While digesting that blurb may tax you, it is easy to see that the ambiance is extremely important here.
Lounges/clubs take particular pride in their decor. Okay, fine. So why then do we have an establishment with no apparent direction? Sure sure, it’s week one and things are still on order and so forth and so on. All those excuses have fallen on deaf ears here. Some extra flowers, a vase or two, a rug, and even some cool artwork can’t save this place. The colors clash (red and gold gives way to blue and gold), the chandeliers are gaudy, and the dining space is far too large for the number of tables used.
Granted, you can’t ultimately judge the feel that they are going for; but considering that they also want to be a night club of sorts … to open in this manner is pretty sad. There is no artwork to be found, a poorly laid out dining area, and nothing to bring the space together. There is such a vast hole in the middle of the restaurant that servers should come equipped with roller blades. Filling it with tables won’t fix the problem either. Shrink the dining space and get some curtains.
This lack of refinement extends all the way to the smallest details. Throughout the meal, tableware was removed and not replaced. Water glasses remained empty far too long, and when asked for an extra plate with our appetizer, nothing showed up.
The food here is the real Razzie. Thirty-something Bruce Maddox, who hails from Cali, was brought in from Aria to run the kitchen. There isn’t a single item on the menu that can’t be found inside of a half-mile away. What’s worse is that if the rest of the menu comes out like the three dishes we sampled, it means that there is no single reason to visit. As noted in other reports, the menu seems a touch Tuscan and touch contemporary American. In the middle, it’s muddled and uninspiring.
First up was the table side focaccia. It was as flavorless at it was color less. Pale and stiff, this may have been the worst bread I’ve put into my mouth in the past several months. Had I tasted the bread before placing my entrée order, I certainly would have gone in another direction. It was so dry, I would have guess it was set out under the sun just for shits and giggles. By the time our appetizer showed up, each of us had returned our leftovers back to the basket from which it came.
The requested app was an order of the crab cakes. For $12, you have two small croquette-esc patties, a generous portion of slaw, and some orange saffron aioli. Let’s start with the cakes. They were made from frozen crab. Why on earth would a restaurant in this location do that? I honestly can say that I would not be surprised to find out that the cakes themselves were brought in as is. I’d work you through the flavor profile, but what’s the point. The aroma was fishy, the texture mediocre, and the sauce a misfire. As for that sauce, references to orange, saffron, and even aioli seem lost on me. If orange and saffron were in fact included, it seems they were introduced far too quickly and far too late in the game.
For our mains, I went with the Prosciutto di Parma panini and my buddy had the Seafood Livornese. When mine showed up, my brow furrowed. Bruce Logue wasn’t making food this bad when he was 10-years old. The sandwich wasn’t much bigger than my fist, and look as unappetizing as I could have imagined. The ham, cured in house, was beyond dry and stiff. There was no discernable flavor other than the salt. The arugula was fresh out of the bag and somewhat pungent. Meanwhile, there wasn’t anything else to help make up for the dryness of the previously sampled focaccia. The eight thick cut fries (yeah … we counted), were cold and bland.
I took a gander and a sample of the Livornese. Yikes! Visually unappealing, this rendition lacked any of the elegance I expect from the simplicity of the sauce. The ingredients were of such inferior quality that again, I struggled to even consider the flavor profile. The predominant take away from the dish was a bland sauce trying to mask inferior and “fishy” sword fish and tuna. A good Livornese sauce highlights the flavor of the olives and capers while demonstrating a reference to garlic.
The failures of the food and decor were compounded by difficult, but friendly, service and rough edges elsewhere. The staff is most certainly green. Though there were no shortage of lookers amongst the servers, a GM was nowhere to be found and it showed. If the trio of candy at the bar was any indication (all were most certainly filling out applications), I don’t expect the lack of experience to find any compensation.
At times, servers disappeared. Other times, we saw that poor girl having a hard time figuring out how to navigate the vastness of the dining room without looking lost. With no instruction from a superior, and no real system in place, she did her best to take care of the customers. What we got were a few short periods of repeated requests to see if anything could be done for us.
The last nail in the coffin is the branding. Branding should never really come into play, but given the disappointments of the meal, I couldn’t help but notice yet another detail that had been completely ignored. The sign outside looks like some love was put into it, however, the presentation of the menu is a joke. It’s printed on this pathetic looking piece of blue paper with a bad font choice, no logo, and little to make me think that it wasn’t printed up on a word processor back in ‘79.
Bottom line is there were so many problems that there is no place for Joia to go but up. Even if they make it out of the doldrums of this experience, they have a long way to go before they are sustainable. At a whopping $38 before tip, you’d have a hard time convincing me to return for what would be an inexpensive dinner. At meals end, we signed away our sanity, looked at each other, and strolled across the street to grab a bite. Come on gang … get it together.