Originally opened as a French-Japanese bakery, Joli Kobe has gone through a couple of overhauls in its nearly thirty-year existence. Katsuhiko “Vic” Watanabe opened the Sandy Springs bakery in 1985. Then it closed for renovations and expansion in 2001. Now, Mihoko Obunai—known for her work at Repast—has taken over and revamped the menu as the Sandy Springs location rebrands itself as a full-service restaurant called Joli Kobe Kitchen. (A Midtown location is now called Joli Kobe Cafe.)
In Sandy Springs, the look is pretty much the same, with the addition of an open kitchen and chef’s counter; but the food has changed.
Why did you decide Joli Kobe Kitchen was the right fit for you after spending the past three years consulting?
The location. There’s Taco Mac and 5 Seasons Brewing, but there are no nice restaurants here to grab a sandwich with homemade bread. At Joli Kobe Kitchen, you can have a glass of wine, or a beautiful plated meal for $10 for lunch. It takes about an hour for me to get here but I don’t want the Sandy Springs people to have to go to Buckhead or Midtown or Decatur to get this kind of food. Here, they don’t have to worry about the valet or the traffic.
Why did Joli Kobe decide to change directions?
They realized they wanted to bring more sales back. They want French and Japanese cooking. No one knows we’re open for dinner. Now we have a new manager, and there’s a lot of change. I have to educate both the servers and the customers.
How will your experience at Repast be reflected at Joli Kobe Kitchen?
It’s been three years. Food style—what’s popular—has changed, but my cooking style is the same. At Repast, my ex-husband was my partner and we shared ideas. Now I’m on my own. I have more responsibility. I wasn’t planning to go back to the kitchen but I’m addicted. Cooking’s my passion.
Repast was the beginning of my ownership career. My sous chef at Joli Kobe, Andy Tren, started as a server there and I trained him to line cook. He knows my style of cooking. I can trust him.
What’s on the new menu?
I kept the signature dishes that had been there ten to twenty years, but I’m trying to focus on balance—creating both healthy meals and hearty meals. I’m working on the lunch menu first. We have different grains, like quinoa salad with Brussels, local apples, confit lemon zest, pickles, baby carrots, red wine vinaigrette, and a lot of fresh herbs. It sold out on its second day. You feel good about eating it. You don’t feel stuffed—you just feel happy.
There’s a porter steak with homemade fries. We’ll have kale salad with a simple vinaigrette, Swiss chard you can eat raw—it’s not just about Romaine lettuce anymore.
We’re pickling everything and displaying it in mason jars. I want to do small plates at dinner and bring more of a young crowd to hang out.
How are the changes coming along?
I’m not a patient person but I have to be patient. I tried to change slowly because customers have been coming here for ten years and they aren’t ready for my style. I have classical French training, so I make my own stock; cook something for twenty hours; roast the bone. . . I’m trying to do farm to table—local farmers, organic vegetables, a local fish guy—keeping everything as simple as possible.