Jade: What's a Critic to Do?

The question I get asked most often, (after "what’s your
favorite restaurant?") is "do you get recognized a lot when you review
restaurants?"

The answer is, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. When a
longtime local restaurateur opens a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, and
staffs it with servers who have been on the local dining scene for ages, then
the odds are pretty good that somebody is going to spot me. But if I go to a
new theme restaurant in the outer burbs, my anonymity is pretty secure — the typical
hostess is about 19 years old, doesn’t read restaurant reviews, and wouldn’t
recognize my name if I handed her a business card.

Ditto most ethnic restaurants.

I suppose it has gotten a little easier to spot me now that The Rake runs a line drawing of me on this blog (see above), but if you had to
pick me out of a police lineup, I don’t think the picture would be much help.
(I’m the guy on the right.)

I used to think that anonymity is really important, but the
longer I stay in the restaurant reviewing business, the less convinced I am.
There is at least a trade-off involved. On the one hand, when I am anonymous, I
don’t get any special treatment, but on the other hand, when chefs and
restaurateurs know who I am, I sometimes find out stuff that gives me a better
sense of what the restaurant has to offer.

Maybe it’s more than that — often, what’s really the most
satisfying part of a dining experience is the human element — learning
something about the people who work at the restaurant, and developing a
relationship with them — and the detached
"secret shopper" approach to
restaurant reviewing misses out on that.

At any rate, I stopped in last night at a new ethnic eatery — Jade Asian Bar and Restaurant in the Midtown Global Market at Chicago and E. Lake St., and promptly did
get spotted by owner Carl Wong. Wong is the former owner of the Seafood Palace
on Nicollet, which I always used to consider one of the best Chinese
restaurants in the Twin Cities. (I haven’t dined there much since he sold it,
so I don’t know how good it is these days — if you have dined there, please let
me know.) Carl’s three-year non-compete agreement expired recently, and he is
back in the restaurant business.

Jade — in the space briefly occupied by Chang Bang — turns
out to be a nicely styled casual dining restaurant with a menu of traditional
and contemporary Chinese cuisine, plus a sushi bar. The sushi bar is only open at night, and for lunch they offer a buffet (nothing particularly impressive, when I tried it.) The bar part isn’t open
yet, but the license has been approved, and the restaurant will start serving
liquor after May 16. Live seafood tanks will also be arriving soon, and will be
stocked with everything from lobster to abalone.

Fire and Ice

At any rate, my wife and I ordered a couple of items off
the menu — the deep-fried stuffed seafood tofu ($9.95) and the salted fish with shredded pork and
eggplant in casserole (hot pot; $10.95), plus an item on the sushi menu that I had
never heard of before — "battleship sushi" — gunkan maki sushi. It turns out
that’s the name for a kind of sushi that I had seen before — the kind that has
a collar of nori, and a filling of sea urchin, or flying fish roe, or other
ingredients that need to be held in place. The sushi chef — Tony Sin Tuy — said he would make a
special order for me. What arrived at our table a few minutes later was a real work of art (or two works of art, to be precise) — each a narrow band of
nori wrapped around a belt of Atlantic salmon, with a filling of sushi rice topped with chopped tempura fried scallops in a spicy mayo, with tobiko roe and a pineapple soy reduction. Tuy calls it Fire & Ice ($5.50), and it is definitely worth asking for.

We had barely finished that delight when another dish
arrived, unordered, at our table — a long snake of a specialty roll — a wild
caterpillar, we later learned — wrapped in avocado, tuna and ripe mango, filled
with spicy shrimp, flavored with Thai seasonings ($10.95). This, too was wonderful.

Then Tuy stopped over and
introduced himself. He obviously knew who I was, and he told us a little about
himself — he grew up in Minnesota and California, is of Thai and Chinese ancestry, and
previously worked at Crave in Edina, where he learned the art of sushi from
chef Tony Lam. He really tries to make sure that every specialty sushi
specialty he creates is distinctive, different from who diners might get
anywhere else, and he works a lof of Thai flavors into his original creations. (Hence, the Thai spices in the wild caterpillar.) I came away
from the conversation genuinely impressed. This is a nice guy who takes sushi
seriously. It was a conversation that I probably wouldn’t have had if I had succeeded in remaining anonymous.

Then comes the other dilemma that goes hand-in-hand with
being recognized: the bill arrives, and there’s no charge for the sushi. I am a
little torn by this because on the one hand, I don’t believe in accepting free
food, and on the other hand, it can get really expensive to pay for a lot of
food that I didn’t order, and it also can feel rude to refuse food that
somebody with good intensions sends over.

So I tell the waiter that I need to pay for everything
that we ate, and the waiter sends me to Carl, who says that the free sushi is
from Tony, so I better take it up with him. Tony doesn’t want my money, but
finally agrees to accept a $10 tip — not quite what the sushi would have cost
if I had ordered it off the menu, but enough to salve my conscience. And I warn
him that I can’t come back unless he agrees to let me pay, next time, for
everything I eat.

And I do want to go back — the seafood stuffed tofu and the salted fish, pork and eggplant casserole were both delightful, and there is a lot more on the menu that I would like to try, ranging from the whole Dungeness crab ($19.95) to the barbecue pork with oysters in hotpot ($10.95).