Over the door is the “dough” — the Chinese ideogram for the Tao (pronounced “doe”), meaning “the way” in general, and in Taoism, the way of the universe. (George Lucas calls it “The Force,” and Einstein called it the “Unified Field Theory,” and yes, old Lao-tzu was onto that cosmology scheme six centuries before Christ.) It’s a pretty heavy ideogram for a glitzy restaurant/lounge. I recognized it because, at 21, I tucked an enface edition of the Tao Te Ching into the saddlebag of my new husband’s BMW-R60 and spray-painted the tao ideogram in Day-Glo fuchsia on my helmet (along with the ideogram for “the Wanderer” on the back of my black leather jacket). Ride a motorcycle and you hope your particular little ego-incarnation will live long and prosper, but you also know, every minute, that you’re prone to the whim of The Way. Painting its sign on your helmet is both a statement of fact and a heartfelt good-luck prayer.
So I’m not sure how I feel about slick restaurants flashing Asian religious symbols. Thai restaurants with “spirit houses” are fine — they’re sincere — but, for instance, the giant Buddha statue dominating the decor at Isabel’s Cantina in P.B. has always set my teeth a bit on edge. It itches me like a TV ad saying, “Nine out of ten Buddhas eat at Food Girl’s.”
In Jade’s basement is an underground ersatz dungeon of pseudo-sin (decorated like a fantasy Shanghai opium den of the ’30s, offering bottle service but no dope) called Buddha Ultra-Lounge, complete with a life-size statue of the Buddha, in real life an ascetic teetotaler who didn’t lounge — although perhaps he may have accepted an icy-cold donated sip of Kingfisher after an especially scorching day meditating under the bo tree. How would a Christian feel about a “Jesus Saloon”? Might be okay if the bartender could turn water into wine. And would Orthodox Israelis frequent a “Yahweh Falafel Bar”? There’s been some stir lately about using exotic ethnicities and spiritualities as logos, e.g., for sports teams with names or mascots based on Native American tribes. Would you root for the Cleveland Vicars, the New York Rabbis, the Boston Popes? Do you wear Samsara perfume (Sanskrit for “total mess”)?
Metaphysical comedy aside, you probably want to know about the food and scene at Jade Theater. Okay.
The entry level of Jade is a cool, spiffy bar-lounge (where you can also eat), but we didn’t see much of it, as we were swiftly spirited upstairs to the main dining room. Like the lounge, it’s coolly handsome, with pale blues and bamboo, subdivided into smaller units with banquettes for foursomes and two-tops along a center aisle overlooking the lounge. The cheesy Euro-lounge music downstairs didn’t bother us until, at the magic hour of 8:00 p.m., the DJ cranked up the volume.
Many waiters, dressed in black cotton, have tattoos peeking out from their collars. Then there are the pretty young women — runners? bussers? mobile scenery? They wear scarlet blouses and black short-shorts. They are obviously allowed to adjust the costumes to their personal modesty levels, ranging from Minnesota-church-summer-camp to bellydancer-in-her-skivvies, with large tattoos on view. On a Friday night, most of the female patrons wore low-cut vampy black dresses. Most of the men wore clean but slightly wrinkled long-sleeved shirts. In our species, the sex-linked plumage of birds is reversed.
The chef is James Montejano, educated at CCA in San Francisco, a seasoned veteran of the famed Aqua and best known here for his stint at Cafe Japengo. If you like the food at Japengo, odds are you will like it here (although there’s no sushi bar at Jade). And you won’t have to fight the hordes of professional women to get a table.
The Japengo pedigree emerges most clearly in the fabulous, flashy, fusion-y appetizers. This is where sushi went when it hit chic La Jolla — forget the rice and seaweed, go with the glow. The Japanese influences are skin-deep; the chef really thinks in Southeast-Asian flavorings. There are two sections of starters, “Tease” and “Taste.” The “teases” are essentially hors d’oeuvres sized for one, the “tastes” large enough to share as group grazes.
The star “tease” is the Hokkaido seared scallop, pristine and perfect on a bed of rice flour–kim chi scallion pancake. Gooey and crisp textures mingle happily, with a coral-colored spicy hollandaise sauce flecked with tiny black Masago caviar.
From this section, a bowl of spicy edamame with honey ponzu is just $4. Accustomed to firmer sushi-bar renditions, I found the beans badly overcooked and, despite the dusting of chili powder, rather boring. Jim and Fred both liked them; Jonathan was skeptical. “At least they’re not as overcooked as my mom’s,” said Jim.
“Tastes” is probably the best section of the menu, with interesting and varied dishes that offer the sheer fun of eating. The killer app is called Jade Shiitake Bites — large, thin, perfect shiitake mushrooms, tempura-style, with a layered filling of spicy ahi, sesame, chive, and genuine crabmeat, with a touch of cream cheese and furikake seasoning, plated over “Yin-Yang” sauces — one a Thai chile vinaigrette, the other based on sweet soy. Light, flavorful, unexpected, it’s everybody’s favorite, and the restaurant’s signature dish. In the center of the plate is a bright and lively little salad of julienned carrots, cabbage, and baby greens.
Spicy calamari are fried into airy puffs and coated with a spicy Thai-style seasoning mix. They are swell with no dip at all but come with two sauces: a smooth, soothing, greenish tobiko-flecked aioli with a touch of nam pla fish sauce, colored with nori (seaweed) powder, and a sweet-spicy red Malaysian chile sauce with diced mango in the mix. The flavors aren’t pure Thai, but they indicate an intuitive understanding of Thai flavors. “I think I love these even more than the calamari at Kensington Grill,” said Jim, and that’s saying a lot.
A lobster trilogy offers three variations on the crustacean theme: miso-glazed lobster meat with diced mango; lobster salad with avocado and pink grapefruit; and, most strikingly, a depth-bomb lobster-coconut milk bisque, which is sweet, deep, complex. The bisque includes the normal tomato paste, brandy, and rich lobster stock made from the carapaces but also has hints of Kaffir lime, ginger, and shallots, with a light undertone of Thai red curry that keeps giving and giving, each sip a slightly different flavor. It dwarfs its partners on the plate — they are nice, but the bisque is brilliant.