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.
Were I to go back to Jade, I’d probably make a full grazing meal of appetizers: There are more to choose from, and they all sound magnetic: arrays of sashimi, tempura, clay-pot clams, tandoori mini lamb chops. This is the territory of four-star dishes, and you could make a spectacular meal from them and still have room (and budget) for some of the creative desserts.
The entrées are huge in quantity and feature terrific, generous vegetable garnishes. The problem is sweetness — too many sugary tastes, and they are not subtle but straight-out sweet, like you find in bad local Thai restaurants pandering to farang palates. The sweetness comes from brown sugar (which tastes closer to Thailand’s palm sugar than does white sugar), but it’s still more than I like.
Entrée portions are ginormous. Order the duck and you get half a big bird (probably a Moulard, judging by size), minus backbone. Order the lobster and you get a two-and-a-half-pound bruiser. The Char Siu duck glazed in pomegranate sauce offers a big breast and leg-thigh piece with a load of delightful veggies — long beans, mushrooms, asparagus. The bird was a tad overdone, a tad tough, and more than a tad oversweet. In fact, after a single bite, I started planning for the fate of the doggie-bag contents, because I guessed that the flavors would be too cloying to sustain the posse’s interest for long. After the second bite, I passed the plate along.
Wok-fried lobster is served in two layers: On top, lobster in a sweet (far too sweet) house-created Thai red-chile glaze, and below it, a crisp chow mein noodle basket cradling a wealth of yummy stir-fried mixed veggies — sugar snaps, baby carrots, asparagus, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, and more. So generous, so fine — so sugary. Lobster may be my favorite foodstuff of all (vying with uni and foie gras), but it’s the last food that needs to be sugar-coated. Three bites to boredom. It’s “market price” ($50), but you can also enjoy it in an even more exorbitant surf-and-turf ($65) with a Brandt beef naturally raised rib-eye center-cut medallion, pan-seared in clarified butter and served in black bean sauce. It’s a great, thick piece of meat. I suspect that the surf-and-turf is a better deal in terms of pleasure, offering a salty, earthy flavor to contrast with the sweet. (The rib-eye is also available on its own.)
Our best entrée was miso-glazed mero — not another imitation of Nobu’s miso black cod, but a quite different invention. Mero is a Japanese fish similar to Chilean sea bass, and here it’s cooked to utter tenderness, glazed with salty, earthy miso, and submerged in a gentle fish-broth consommé seasoned with Southeast-Asian seasonings (Kaffir lime, galanga, ginger) with udon noodles and veggies. It’s delicate and deeply pleasing.
The cheapest entrée balanced my budget for the lobster: the $16 “What the Pho?,” Vietnamese beef-noodle soup. Once you say it out loud, you’ll never again mispronounce “pho” as “foe” — “fuh” has the sound down. (The dish arose in French-occupied Indochina, especially the chillier parts of North Vietnam, as a local stab at pot-au-feu, aka Gallic pot roast.) I liked it a lot, if not quite as well as the $6 pho you can get anywhere on El Cajon Boulevard in the 40s. The beef broth was hearty from long cooking, and the garnishes were a reasonably authentic array, including Asian mint sprigs, bean sprouts, and sliced green jalapeños. The meat, billed as Wagyu beef, is American Kobe flatiron in long, thin, well-done slices. On the side of the bowl are two dips, Sriracha chile sauce (a standard garnish at Vietnamese restaurants) and hoisin sauce (sweet-spicy Chinese barbecue sauce), which you can use as dips for beef lifted out of the soup on chopsticks. That night, by chance, the broth really — really — needed more star anise or Chinese five-spice blend. (Apparently, it varies from night to night.) Without that, it isn’t quite right — but I liked it anyway, because it was cheap and (again) not sweet.
The website mentions a sake list, but that’s actually a future plan. By quizzing our waiter, we discovered that the current infantile incarnation includes a full-size bottle of Takara Nigori (fizzy unfiltered sake) for a relative bargain price of $20 (on a wine list that starts at $40). So we chose that for the appetizers. The regular wine list has something for every taste, if you can afford it. For our second round, we decided to order by the glass to go with specific entrées and to pass them around (most choices $11–$14), which worked out pretty well. A fruity Santa Barbara–grown Marsanne-Rousanne white blend seemed the best overall complement to the various flavors.
There are serious temptations for dessert — housemade banana fritters, coconut-passionfruit cake, etc. But the sugar in the entrées had used up our table’s appetite for sweets. Not one of us could face the possibility of more. To live in harmony with the Tao, you don’t stuff yourself on sweets when your body tells you you’ve already consumed more than enough. Ignore those inner clues and you risk a clash with The Way — not to mention a jaded palate.
ABOUT THE CHEF
James Montejano is a local guy from Escondido, and he didn’t start out to become a chef — he began as a high schooler working part-time as a dishwasher and busser in neighborhood restaurants. Cooking just snuck up on him. “I got a job at the Brigantine in Escondido…and when they needed help in the kitchen, I started prepping, and as I worked my way up, I became a cook. I wasn’t planning to become a cook or a chef, I was just trying to make money. I kind of fell into it; I guess I had a knack.
“I worked for Brigantine for over 11 years…opened up the Oyster Bar in Del Mar, and then I decided it was time to do something with my career, so I went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I’d just gotten divorced and owned some property, and my ex-wife and I split the equity. That financed my tuition there, and of course I worked when I was up there. I lived in the Tenderloin and ate cheap and worked while I was in school. I got a job at the famous Trader Vic’s…it was just awesome to work there. The staff had so much experience…The school and the city really opened my eyes — just being in San Francisco, in a town with so much culture and so much food, I just engulfed myself, and at school, I just engulfed myself in the craft….
“The big experience I had there was at Aqua in its heyday, from 1993 to 1998, under George Morrone and then Michael Mina. It was one of the top three San Francisco restaurants at the time, along with Fleur de Lys and Masa. If you messed up, they’d just throw you off the line. There was some harsh learning there, but I had the time of my life. It was the top experience of my life. The guys I worked with are executive chefs all over the country now.
“The reason I left San Francisco was that my wife couldn’t take care of my eight-year-old son anymore, so I had to put my career on hold — if not for that, I’d probably be in New York or in San Francisco. He was a great kid, very independent, very social. He’s 19 now, up in San Francisco majoring in pre-law — he wants to get into politics.
“I opened up Vivace in Carlsbad and then became executive chef at Pamplemousse. I worked for Jeffrey Strauss, worked at Pacifica Del Mar, then came back to Pamplemousse…I worked as executive chef at Brigantine, went back to Aqua for a bit, and then came back here again….
“I heard that Japengo was looking for a chef, and I faxed them my résumé seven times until I got the job. I worked there three years and then went to Valley View Casino, but after the food and beverage director who hired me left, nothing was the same. Riko Bartolomei [formerly at Asia-Vous, now moved to Maui] called me and told me there was a new restaurant with an opening downtown. Jason Seibert [of Café Cerise] was going to cook there, but he went to work for Spago instead. So I went to work at Jade.
“I like everything on my plate to be edible, everything for a reason. I love to make food, and I have passion for my food. A smile on the face is what counts. Simplicity is the best way.”
****(Very Good to Excellent)
701 C Street (at Seventh Street), downtown, 619-814-5125, jadetheater.com.
HOURS: Sunday–Wednesday 4:00–10:00 p.m., Thursday–Saturday until midnight; lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Monday–Friday.
PRICES: Appetizers, $4–$20; entrées, $16–$65 (most about $35).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Asian fusion, mingling flavors from all over Asia. Full bar. International wine list, few bottles under $40, many choices by the glass. Sake list under construction, currently includes Takara Nigori ($20 for fifth-size bottle).
PICK HITS: Hokkaido scallop appetizer; Jade shiitake bites; spicy calamari; lobster trilogy; miso-glazed mero; surf and turf (lobster/rib-eye). “Mercy of the Chef” private dinners for up to ten available at a price to be negotiated.
NEED TO KNOW: Reserve if eating is your goal. Dining room (and restrooms) upstairs, with elevator access. One vegan/vegetarian entrée, several veggie appetizers. Room gets loud around 8:00 p.m. Party spaces can accommodate up to 200 guests. Business or resort casual for men, mostly date dresses for dating-age women.