Posh velvety couches, cushioned with tactile pillows, beckon from in front of roaring fireplaces. Background music evokes the Jazz Age, with interpretations of Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter standards wafting through the air, while chandeliers adorned with white feathers gently stir overhead. The whole effect at The Joy Nest, the Newburyport restaurant from Caroline Jolliffe, who also owns Brown Sugar by the Sea across the street, evokes a 1920s-era supper club—but one with Asian-inspired street food and gin-forward cocktails, both as beautifully presented as they are delicious.
Settle in with one of those cocktails to wash away the world outside. Head bartender Christian Colaiacovo, whose signature vintage three-piece suit, complete with pocket watch and newsboy-style cap, might be familiar to those who frequented Latchkey in Portsmouth, fits right in with the Prohibition-era vibe, as do his updates of classic cocktails.
Start with The Nest, an alluring lemony mix of gin and Lillet, with a whisper of absinthe. It’s fresh and balanced, and a lovely accompaniment to Yum Met Mamuang Himapan—this dish of warmed cashews is a popular Thai bar snack, bright with fresh lime juice, cilantro, and mint, with a touch of heat and sweet from chili and honey. Snuggle into a settee and imagine you’ve jetted off to a far-flung sunny destination.
The cashews are found on the “Little Street Eats” sharable portion of the menu—head chef Matthew Chasse’s interpretation of classic street foods mainly hailing from Thailand. Chasse spent six years across the street at Brown Sugar, gaining an appreciation of the most important principle of Thai food—that each dish should balance sweet, salty, sour, and spicy flavors. That philosophy is on full display with the beef Steamed Bao Buns— marinated for 24 hours in a mixture including mushroom soy sauce and lime, the beef has an intense salty sweetness, balanced by a spicy sour sauce offset by crisp fresh radish and cucumber.
Other light bites on the Street Eats menu include Moo Ping—a dish of thin-sliced pork, marinated in soy, oyster sauce, cilantro stems, and garlic, then brushed with coconut cream as it is grilled. An amped-up sibling to the more familiar chicken satay, it’s served with a tongue-tingling dried chili-vinegar dipping sauce. Seeking carbs? Don’t overlook the Man Tod—wedges of sweet potato battered with rice flour and sesame seeds, then deep fried to shattering perfection and served with a side of sweet chili sauce. You won’t be able to stop with just one… or two… or three.
Entrees focus mainly on a smorgasbord of Asian noodle dishes. If you’re vegan—or just craving vegetables, order a bowl of the flavorful Tom Yum Pak—this vegan soup starts with a hot and sour broth flavored with lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime, and shallots, served over rice noodles and topped with a generous portion of mushrooms and fresh vegetables.
Tom Yum Pak is just one of several vegan dishes, and many more have vegetarian options. Additionally, much Thai cooking is naturally gluten free, so The Joy Nest can accommodate a variety of special diets.
Which is not to say carnivores are neglected—spice-loving meat eaters should try the Crying Tiger, a marinated and grilled beef tenderloin with an intensely hot kick that builds on the tip of your tongue. Looking for a light main course? Try the Pla Tod Yum Mamuang, a dish of crisp fried white snapper served atop tangy julienned green mango, tossed with roasted peanuts, lime juice, and Thai chilis, then topped with cashews.
For dessert, if you see the Mango Sticky Rice, order it. Perfect mangoes are really a seasonal joy, and the kitchen only offers it when they can find ideally ripe fruit. More reliably, the restaurant intends to offer a variety of house-made Thai-inspired ice creams and sorbets, with a recent dish of Dragon Fruit sorbet both a feast for the eyes as well as a cooling treat for the tongue.
In normal times, The Joy Nest’s second-floor lounge will be humming with live music nightly and a menu limited to “Little Street Eats,” because soups and noodles seem a bit tricky to navigate up the stairs. For now, the vibe, with socially distanced tables and capacity restrictions in place, is more soothing oasis than hopping supper club—but there are joys to be found in either.
So change out of those sweat pants and snuggle into a faux-fur lined chair. And pretend you’ve jetted off to paradise for a few hours.
50 Water Street, Newburyport, 978-572-1615, thejoynestrestaurant.com