AS A foodie geek, I have an enormous and regularly updated list of new restaurants, recent recommendations and must-see places that need reviewing, so I don’t often make a habit of delegating to my reviewing partner, but for one week only I made an exception.
Jasmine Chinese Restaurant
32-34 Grindlay Street, Edinburgh EH3 9AP (0131-229 5757, www.jasminechinese.co.uk)
Gary is much travelled and his great love in life is Chinese food, so Chinese it was. It’s one of life’s minor mysteries that an increasingly cosmopolitan city like Edinburgh, which has such a wealth of restaurants, has no standout Chinese restaurant.
The Kweilin in the New Town is often put forward as the best in the capital (and it certainly charges like it’s top dog) but it’s not my personal cup of green tea. There is a raft of other contenders, but some extensive research (ie, asking the half dozen Edinburgh Chinese folk I know) gave me a short list of three for Gary: the frighteningly authentic Wing Sing Inn in Gorgie; the venerable China Town, which nestles among the tramworks in the West End; and the Jasmine Chinese restaurant next to the Usher Hall, beloved of theatre-goers and Chinese families.
Given that the latter was within easy walking distance of his flat, we found ourselves at Jasmine, a pretty, well-turned-out little restaurant. Given that many of its customers are there before performances at the Usher Hall or Royal Lyceum, the rush hour of 6.30-7.30pm was already over and the place was empty except for a couple of grandparents with their two young grandchildren, who sat around a table which was groaning with a huge array of dishes. They had clearly enjoyed their meal and provided some useful signposts on which dishes to try.
Suitably inspired, we waded in, opting for the smorgasbord of five starters, followed by two main courses each. The menu was an interesting mix of the usual favourites which pander to European palates, plus a few more authentic dishes, such as Hung-Shao – sizzling bean curd or salty squid with chilli – with the starters treading a middle path.
We started with two pieces of fresh mango and prawn roll in seaweed, salty and spicy chicken, barbecue spare ribs, chicken roll, crispy king prawns with wasabi and fried corn won ton, and from the first mouthful both of us were impressed. The spare ribs were, well, spare ribs, but the rest of the platter was a treat that we took time to savour. The huge king prawns, for instance, came encased in a surprisingly delicate and almost creamy wasabi sauce, while the small chicken spring rolls had a dry-as-dust exterior and a smooth, velveteen inside which was a million miles away from the standard issue spring roll.
The fresh mango and prawn roll in seaweed looked more like something you’d find in a Japanese sushi restaurant. It was almost like a California roll, but cooked and with an interior that was the consistency of scrambled egg, complemented by a subtle mango and a strong prawn flavour. In short, it was as interesting as it was tasty, while the salty and spicy chicken was done in succulent chunks, tempura style. Taken as a piece, our starters were excellent, with Gary’s oriental sensibilities remaining unoffended.
If the starters were all good, the main courses were a mixed bag in which the best of the bunch was undoubtedly the satay chicken on a sizzling plate. This is a dish which is cooked throughout Asia, and which Gary uses to decide whether the kitchen know what they’re doing. There are two basic variations on this theme, the Indonesian version in which the sauce is heavily peanut-based, and the Malaysian version in which the sauce has a distinctly spicy edge and which is Gary’s preferred choice. Despite this being the Indonesian version, thanks to the astonishingly succulent chicken and the cloyingly smooth satay sauce, my dining partner rated it among the best he’d ever had, rare praise from a man who treats his dim sum and won ton with an almost reverential seriousness.
The house speciality is seafood, so I’d ordered a dish which included both Szechuan scallops with ginger, spring onions and chilli, plus king prawns with vegetables. It was, to be frank, mildly disappointing: the scallops had been steamed and were tender but had lost much of their flavour, while the prawns were similarly unadorned. It was fine, but I can think of any number of places in our great capital where £14.50 will get you a far better seafood experience.
The roast duck with plum sauce was a step up from the scallops and prawns, but was still a bit of a conundrum. There was much to like about it – the duck was good quality and had a beautifully dark flavour, while the plum sauce had a sweet and sour edge that complemented the duck perfectly – but the meat was a little dry and unmistakably overcooked.
We rounded off with the shredded beef in chilli sauce, a dish which so often ends up by you having to gnaw through matted, string-like ribbons of beef surrounded by a thick, gloopy sauce, but this was a cut above that. Dry and with a light and unspicy chilli sauce, this wasn’t the sort of dish that sparks week-long jaw-ache and Gary pronounced himself happy enough with it. (I wasn’t, but then I didn’t order it).
By the end of our meal, we were thoroughly puzzled. What started off as a rip-roaring oriental culinary experience had fizzled out with a whimper. The service was friendly, the prices are (just about) sensible and the ambience is suitably understated and tranquil, but the quality of the food rose and fell in rollercoaster style. And I still don’t know which of Edinburgh’s Chinese restaurants to recommend when next asked.
• Jasmine Chinese Restaurant, 32-34 Grindlay Street
• Banquet from £20.80 per head; Starters £4.20-£8.50 (selection £7.95 per person), Main courses £8.80-£16.80