March 2004: Jasmine Garden
Excellent Szechuan cooking, especially from the Chinese menu; good Japanese and Thai offerings.
Another first-rate Chinese restaurant for Northern Virginia: Jasmine Garden is near the line between Falls Church and Fairfax. The chef's credentials include a turn at the Sheraton Hotel in Shanghai. There is plenty to cheer about this new Szechuan eatery besides the excellence and authenticity of its cuisine. It also offers the cooking of Thailand and Japan prepared by native chefs. The portions are large and the prices are reasonable.
The location, in the Yorktowne Shopping Center, gives no indication of what is inside. The small dining room is modern and attractive with dark red walls and ceilings. The tables and chairs of dark brown hardwood are imported from China. Near the entrance is a piano. What's it doing in a Chinese restaurant? Owner Robin Wang, an opera singer, is getting her doctorate in music at the University of Maryland. From time to time there are evenings of opera to go with the Peking duck and steamed fish. The first, on Chinese New Year, was fun. Call about future events.
One negative regarding the fine Szechuan cooking: Around Chinese New Year, the menu handed to non-Chinese customers had the standard dishes from all over China, plus a selection of Thai and Japanese offerings. Ethnic Chinese got another menu, written only in Chinese script, that listed the chef's authentic preparations. While the staff couldn't have been more helpful in translating the Chinese-language menu, that wasn't the same as seeing it. And it wasn't any help to customers who didn't know the Chinese menu existed.
Although non-Chinese patrons might not find all entries on the Chinese menu enticing—sea cucumber is very gelatinous, and pork is from the belly and incredibly fatty—there are many winners. Among them are pan-fried cod, two large cod steaks in a brown sauce made with soy sauce and garlic; spicy fish in a hot pot; scallops of tilapia in a sauce with chili and thickened with long-cooked shreds of lettuce; baby shrimp and shredded chicken along with small, crispy noodles in a wrap of iceberg lettuce; crusty southern-Chinese-style baby back ribs in an intense, slightly sweet brown sauce; and three-cup chicken, made with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and scallion greens. In the bitter melon with beef and black beans, the beef was excellent, but the bitter melon was, well, very bitter.
The standard, English-language menu is good. There is a fine Peking duck; a superb deep-fried rockfish, nicely scored and tender; vegetables such as eggplant in garlic sauce; seafood of all sorts; and noodles. Jasmine Garden makes its own noodles by hand, with the chef twirling a large cylinder of dough until it breaks into strands. Order them with or without soup. Some dishes, such as three-cup chicken, appear on both the regular and Chinese menus. The Chinese version is usually bolder. One exception to the rule: Order pork from the English menu unless you like medium-rare bacon.
The modest selections of Thai and Japanese dishes were very good but did not measure up to the best Chinese. Sushi is fresh and comes both à la carte and in set presentations to feed one person or a baseball team. Shrimp teriyaki was okay, but the shrimp lacked zest and the sauce had sweet and sour overtones. Thai dishes are good but not spectacular. Thai basil eggplant made with small Japanese eggplants and red bell peppers was appropriately intense.
Appetizers are not a major draw at Jasmine Garden, but the steamed pork-stuffed pot stickers and the golden moneybags, a purse made of soybean skin and stuffed with pork, were very good.
As of early February the restaurant was awaiting action on its application for a liquor license. The maitre d' knows his wines, and the restaurant hopes to have an attractive bar open soon.
8106 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church (Yorktowne Shopping Center); 703-208-9989. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.
ATMOSPHERE: Pleasant and cheerful yet intimate.
FOOD: Excellent Szechuan cooking, especially from the Chinese menu; good Japanese and Thai offerings.
SERVICE: Among the best encountered in a Chinese restaurant.
PRICE: Dinner main courses: $7.95 to $16.95. Lunch special: $6.95 to $8.95 (you can order from the dinner menu if you ask). Dinner for two: $30.
VALUE: Very good.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent Chinese restaurant that offers all sorts of bonuses.