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French and Japanese cultures intersect at north metro bakery.

The name is the first clue that the gleaming bakery in north Atlanta is going to be something special.

Joli Kobe Bakery: "Joli," as in the French for "pretty," and "Kobe" for the Japanese city from which the store's owner hails.

After starting the successful Kobe Steaks in 1975, Katsuhiko "Vic" Watanabe wanted a French-Japanese bakery like the ones in Tokyo and in other major U.S. cities. French pastry and bread shops are hugely popular in Japan, he says. "It's a real cultural mix, and we wanted to bring it here."

The bakery started turning out croissants to chocolate eclairs in 1985 before closing in 2001 for renovation and expansion. Now at twice the size of the original bakery and with a large-scale pastry-baking kitchen downstairs, Joli Kobe, run by chef François Collet, is filled with traditional French pastries and desserts from mousses to madeleines. The bakery employs three pastry chefs and three bakers.

Glass cases lining one side of the shop are home to largely French delicacies -- beautiful fig tarts, rich gateaux covered in thick curls of dark chocolate, tiny pumpkins made of marzipan. It's not unusual to see Japanese families browsing in the bakery, the children clamoring and pointing out treats: "I'd like that one!"

"People who come here from Japan, they say this is like in Tokyo," Watanabe says. More attuned shoppers will detect the intersection of the two cultures that the shop represents in the stainless steel shelves at the store's center. Trays hold traditional Japanese buns, some filled with sweet potato, corn or ham and mayonnaise. There's an unusual "sausage bun" that looks like a gourmet pig-in-a-blanket, that 1960s standard of franks baked in a wrapper of dough. The most obvious crossover, though, is the red bean croissant, a flaky French crescent roll filled with sweet adzuki beans, which, besides being tasty, have been thought by Japanese for centuries to bring good luck. Most of the buns are in the $2 range.

The process of adding more Japanese flavors has been slow, says Watanabe's partner, Jo Yoshimura. "It's subtle but it's definitely there."

Watanabe started in the restaurant business in the early 1970s, soon after arriving in the United States from his home in Kobe. His job with a textile company in Atlanta evaporated when the business went bankrupt, he says. So he started thinking about his next step. "I had eaten at the only Japanese restaurant in Atlanta at that time with my boss," he says. "And I said, 'This is what I want to do -- start a Japanese restaurant in Atlanta.' "

So he left the South to work in restaurants in New York, learning the business from dishwashing up. He returned to Atlanta, met his future partner working in a Japanese restaurant here, and finally opened Kobe Steaks in 1975. The bakery followed in 1985, and seven years later Watanabe bought the complex where the two restaurants reside: the Prado office retail center on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs which was later sold to Sembler Co.


- Jill Sabulis, Atlanta Journal Constitution



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