Pacific Rim Shot
The spongy, marshmallow-sized scallops are coated in a sauce that tastes like ketchup mixed with cornstarch and a lot of sugar. The bright red seafood chunks are hilariously presented in the center of a wreath of broccoli tops. What a great Christmas centerpiece this dish would make!
Café Le Jadeite on West Gray is a spectacular-looking high-end Chinese restaurant with an awesome collection of art and artifacts and overpriced, indifferent food. Judging by the crowds, this seems to be the formula for success in the River Oaks Shopping Center.
The crunchy shrimp in apple-ginger sauce are fried in pairs so the lightly battered crustaceans stick together. The shrimp are delicious, but the sauce is too sweet. A stack of Mongolian beef slices is seasoned with garlic, orange peel and chile. Although it looks like a pile of worn shoe soles, it's by far the best thing on the table, and it goes fast.
A neon sign in the restaurant's window reads: "Pacific Rim cuisine." Take that description with a whole bottle of soy sauce.
The term "Pacific Rim cuisine" was originally coined to describe an Asian-fusion cooking style that evolved in the Hawaiian Islands and included elements of Japanese, Polynesian and other Pacific food cultures. Alan Wong in Honolulu serves my favorite version. I love his cold California roll stuffed with hot lobster mousse and his barely cooked ahi tuna decorated with flying fish roe. Roy Yamaguchi, the founder of Roy's, a Hawaiian fusion restaurant chain, is the best-known practitioner of the style. There's a Roy's in Austin and another in Dallas; Houston doesn't have one yet. But you can find similar food in Space City at such restaurants as Rickshaw and the recently reviewed Mantra ("Fantastic Fusion," April 22).
Café Le Jadeite is serving badly upscaled Cantonese food, not Pacific Rim cuisine. It's the latest in a long line of Houston "fantasy Chinese" restaurants.
"It reminds me of the fancy Asian restaurants where we used to go when I was a kid," says my dinnermate, a longtime Houstonian, craning his neck to admire a huge glass panel of artwork hanging over our heads. "Like Albert Gee's 'Polyasian' on South Main and Trader Vic's in the old Shamrock Hotel. They both had ornate Hawaiian-looking decorations and sweet and gloppy Cantonese food."
The founders of Café Le Jadeite used to own the popular Panda Garden Chinese restaurants, our waiter tells us. They sold those and then built Qin Dynasty ("Six Flags over China," November 15, 2001) and Café Le Jadeite. The owners must have had a lot of fun shopping for decorations. There's a giant seated Buddha over the front door of Café Le Jadeite, an enormous reclining Buddha along a back wall, and several other monumental Chinese artworks. The dining room sections are set off by illuminated glass Buddha heads. A treelike sculpture of bright red glass balls towers over the center aisle. Everywhere you look, there's another outrageous Asian art piece. It seems like the Chinese equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafe -- you come to gawk. The unmemorable food is just an excuse to be there.
"It's like an opera set," my dining companion says of the two-story interior, where a full-size clay charioteer drives a team of horses across a stone canopy. I notice a pair of opium pipes beside two easy chairs near the front door.
"It would be a pretty nice opium den, too," I say, picking up a pipe and trying it out for size. When the host arrives, I ask him for something to put in the pipe.
"Sorry, no smoking," he replies. Too bad -- opium would have greatly improved my impression of the restaurant.
Over three visits, the worst of the appetizers was something the menu calls "avocado prowns," which turned out to be one shrimp sticking out of some avocado slices arranged around a sickeningly sweet mango salsa -- it took about 12 seconds to eat and cost $9. The best was a succulent pile of grilled shucked oysters seasoned with ginger and scallions. No bargain at $10, but at least it was tasty with my Tsingtao beer. The restaurant actually has a temperature-controlled wine cellar if you prefer vintage wine with your Chinese food.
The hot-and-sour soup was neither hot nor sour. The dried lily buds called "golden needles" are generally considered one of that soup's signature ingredients. If they were in there, I didn't see them. The "Szechuan spicy dumplings" were soggy and not the least bit spicy. And while I expected the "baby seafood rolls" to be small, I didn't think cutting one in half would require microsurgery.
Over my three visits, I tried eight entrées -- one was excellent, three were pretty good, three were below average, and one was ludicrous. The best was a clay pot filled with chicken meat and velvet-textured eggplant. However, we cheated by requesting that the kitchen make ours extra-spicy. This got us just enough sliced jalapeño to make the dish exciting.
The pretty good dishes included the aforementioned Mongolian beef and "duck à la Jadeite," a steamed and roasted breast sliced French-style on the angle. The $28 duck was served in a sauce that tasted faintly of hoisin and was accompanied by slices of toast and a pile of green beans. The dish reminded me of a socialite I once met: attractive to look at, very rich and, after a couple of minutes, utterly boring. The other passable plate was the spicy tangy chicken that I had one day for lunch. But once again, I cheated by begging for extra chiles.
All three below-average entrées featured shrimp. The shrimp were large and cooked expertly so they remained juicy. But each dish came swathed in a different sauce, and each ruined the perfectly cooked shrimp in its own way. The rainbow shrimp was coated with a cornstarch-based glop and served with a boring mélange of vegetables, while the apple-ginger shrimp tasted like not much ginger, a little apple and a whole lot of sugar. The shrimp à la Hunan reprised the hideous flavor of Santa's red-and-green scallop wreath.
How can a below-average restaurant like Café Le Jadeite be thriving when there are so many exceptional Chinese restaurants in Houston to choose from? The answer can be deduced by counting all the bland anglicized Chinese restaurants that thrive in strip centers in every neighborhood of the city. Sure, many Houstonians are exceptionally savvy about Asian cuisine, but others are quite content with sweet-and-sour pork and shrimp fried rice. And you can hardly blame the restaurant owners for giving the people what they want.
So it's pointless for me to get up on my high horse and tell the former owners of Panda Garden that Houstonians have more sophisticated tastes in Chinese food. They've already made a lot of money betting against that horse. Instead, let me advise those knowledgeable Houstonians who do love authentic Chinese food and real Pacific Rim cuisine to go eat someplace other than Café Le Jadeite.
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