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Jai Yun Valentine's Dinner (long)

Syre | Feb 15, 2004 07:16 PM

Yesterday I took my Valentine to Jai Yun for dinner. It was just the two of us, and I was initially concerned that we might not get enough dishes, but this turned out to be groundless.

Jai Yun is a very unprepossessing place. The décor is entirely basic hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, complete with two color disco lights, a moving waterfall picture, and a plastic owl (or eagle, hard to tell which). Upon being seated, we were presented with non-menus which basically said “You can spend $35-$150 per person. We won’t tell you what you get for it, you can’t request any dishes and sorry, we don’t speak English.”

Our waiter was a young fellow wearing an Old Navy T-shirt and glasses frames with no lenses in them. He spoke barely any English, but enough to tell us that we would be making a mistake if we went with the $35 option. “For $35 you get no seafood and no specialties. Only some vegetables and maybe chicken.”

I asked him what we had to spend to get seafood and he said “Maybe $50”, so I said OK.

$50 turned out to be the ticket to getting everything anyone else got, except one table which must have selected a higher priced option – they got one extra dish of giant prawns at the end.

I had made the reservation for 7:30, and they seemed amenable to any hour, however as it turned out there was one “seating” and everyone got the same dishes at the same time. Had we shown up an hour later, I suspect we would have just gotten fewer dishes. An hour earlier and maybe we would have gotten more? In total, we got six appetizers and ten ‘main’ dishes.

First came the appetizers. There were six small dishes:
- dyed red peanuts with an interesting flavor
- cabbage with chili peppers, chili oil and ginger
- cold chicken marinated in rice wine
- a salad of jellyfish (I think!), crab and green onions with an excellent flavor
- thin slices of dried cured beef with perhaps a five-spice flavor
- cucumber with sesame oil and an interesting flavor (with a maraschino cherry on top!)

After this, dishes came out one at a time. All portions were quite small but they added up to quite a lot. At one point I wondered whether the food was as good as it seemed, or if it was made to seem better than it was by the presentation and drama. The decision? 70% great, 30% drama.

First came a dish of shrimps with diced red, green and yellow peppers. The shrimps had no shell, and were perfectly cooked in a hint of light aromatic sauce.

This was followed by a dish of fresh green soybeans cooked in a spicy sauce with diced scallions and something I couldn’t identify but which might have been fresh gingko nuts.

Next was a dish of hot orange-flavored beef of which the waiter said “you must eat it hot!”. This was very thinly sliced and had an unusual (but off-putting to my friend) medicinal flavor. It was hard to detect any beef flavor because the beef was sliced so thinly and was battered. But it was an interesting dish.

We were then brought a dish consisting of a pile of sauteed julienned vegetables which was announced as “celery”. I don’t like celery but couldn’t taste any celery flavor, so I’m not sure what it was, but it was quite good if a bit salty.

We didn’t know if we would be getting what everyone else got or not, and were a bit concerned when the large tables got big roasts of pork covered with a dark brown sauce, but soon we were presented with a small elegant tureen which, when opened, revealed red-cooked pork with vermicelli noodles. The red sauce was sweet and very delicious, and we were happy to get this version rather than the other.

The theme seemed to alternate vegetables with meats, and our next vegetable course was “special mushroom”, which turned out to be some kind of (probably fairly ordinary) mushrooms which had been fringed on the edges, making them look very exotic. They were served with fresh basil and caramelized onions, each mushroom on a toothpick. This dish was one of the more ordinary-tasting of them, though still quite good.

Our next course was a chicken with brown sauce and taro balls. The taro balls were about the size of macadamia nuts and were quite soft. The sauce was tangy and delicious. The chicken was in small chunks. My date had never tasted taro before but loves potato, and was quite pleased with the potato-like aromatic balls.

The next course was a winter melon covered with a savory garlic meat sauce. I often don’t like winter melon because of its bitterness, but this one had not a trace of it. It was slightly sweet and more squash-like. A really nice dish.

I remarked that we still hadn’t seen much seafood, and sure enough whole fishes started to emerge from the kitchen. I was wondering what we’d end up getting, since the large tables each got one fish, but then ours came out and it was a somewhat smaller but still quite respectably large fish. It appeared to have been steamed, then fried, and was served with a tangy and sweet brown sauce with bits of diced red pepper and garlic. This was a really fresh, lovely sweet fish.

The final course was a plate of hot spicy fried eggplants, not usually my favorite. The sauce was excellent if a bit sweet and also too hot for my companion. The eggplants, though fine, did leave that bitter eggplant sting in my mouth. This dish, like the orange beef was announced as “must eat hot!” Our waiter also said “this is last dish ok? Did you have enough?”

We had had more than enough, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit of fruit or some other sweet to finish things off. I’m not sure if more food would have been available if we’d said we were still hungry, or if more money would have been requested, but at this point we were well stuffed.

We’d started eating at 7:45 and it was now 9:30. Every table finished at the same time, and the chef came out in a white apron and red baseball cap looking much younger than I’d expected. Everyone applauded and cheered, and the dinner was complete.

Looking back on it, I think we actually got a better deal than the people at the large table next to us. Their portions were larger, but there were 12 of them and only two of us, and it seemed as if they only got 3 or 4 times as much food, not 6 times!

Was it the best Chinese food I’ve ever tried? Perhaps not, but it was generally very good to excellent. And we agreed that the tasting menu at $50 was definitely worth it, partly for the drama, but mostly for the variety and quality of cooking.

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