Asian Surprises, Subtle and Sublime

Greg Cox, News and Observer Food Writer
June 16, 2006

The warm, vivid colors of Jujube’s dining room invite you in through the half-drawn bamboo shades on the storefront windows. More than most, its decor sets the tone for the meal to come.

Step inside, and the details take shape. To your right is a narrow room whose focal point is Jujube’s open kitchen, where the wok-and-flame show is evocative of the Asian street vendors whose food inspires owner/chef Charlie Deal’s menu. To your left, the rich tropical hues and Asian accents of the main dining room set a quieter but equally fitting stage for Deal’s contemporary riffs on chopsticks themes.

While the chef notes that many of his dishes aren’t strictly authentic, all are absolutely true to the spirit of the cuisines — primarily Chinese and Vietnamese — that inspired them. And, with very few exceptions, his compositions are as balanced and well-focused as the black-and-white photographs of Asian streetscapes that hang on one of his restaurant’s dining room walls.

Deal’s talents are most apparent in the dishes with which he allows himself the most creative license. Spicy oyster mushroom curry soup straddles the culinary boundaries of Thailand and Vietnam in masterful orchestration of diverse flavors accented by coconut, chiles, lime and cilantro. An entree pairing of stir-fried venison with watercress salad is inspired, the yin and yang opposites brought into harmony by caramelized onions and a complex sauce of Shaoxing wine and sweet black vinegar.

In another main course offering, pan-fried crab and shrimp cakes are a delightful Southeast Asian twist on the American crab cake theme, the cakes bound together with rice noodles and served over a corn and green chile curry. Initially offered as a special, these have proved so popular that they’ve earned a spot on the regular menu.

If Deal’s culinary wizardry isn’t as immediately obvious in dishes that hew to a more traditional line, it’s nonetheless evident to those familiar with those dishes. On paper, the ingredients that go into the making of Jujube’s chia gio are pretty much the same as everywhere else. But attention to detail and emphasis on fresh (and, when possible, local) ingredients yield a spring roll whose filling — a toothsome hash of shrimp, pork and mushrooms — and crisp, grease-free wonton wrapper are both a cut above the norm.

In the case of the Niman Ranch hanging roast pork banh mi, better make that two cuts above the norm. At $7, it’s pricy by banh mi standards, but it’s worth every penny.

Spinach, scallions and cilantro all retain their verdant freshness, tossed with blanched noodles in a spicy peanut sauce. Same goes for the asparagus, dressed in a sweet chile and mint dressing, that accompanies a grilled lamb sirloin. And that goes for the bias-cut slivers of scallion sprinkled throughout a small plate of fried calamari (though the calamari itself was chewy when I sampled it, the only outright disappointment I encountered).

Side dishes and salads are hardly an afterthought. Wok-flashed pea shoots with spinach, judiciously seasoned with garlic and soy, is a sublime study in simplicity. Same goes for a snappy salad of cucumbers and red onions in a rice vinegar dressing whose sweetness is subtly punctuated with the bite of chile.

House-made dumplings, which range from pork and shrimp shumai to chicken and cilantro in scallion broth, would do a dim sum house proud. In fact, Jujube recently began serving dim sum on weekends, and you can bet that the dumplings are among the quickest of the two dozen or so offerings to disappear from the carts. Jujube further separates itself from traditional Asian restaurants with a distinctive dessert offering (including a killer lemon-lime coconut rice pudding) and a thoughtfully chosen wine list. The bartender mixes a mean cocktail, too. I’m especially fond of a house specialty called the Chi, an ambrosial brew of muddled cucumber, house-infused ginger honey, litchi and gin that’s the liquid embodiment of the culinary principles that make Jujube special. It’s also a surefire cure for the summertime blues.

Cuisine: Asian.

Rating: *** Excellent.

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: contemporary Asian, in tropical hues.

Service: welcoming and generally attentive, with occasional misfires.

Recommended: mushroom curry soup, dumplings, banh mi, crab and shrimp cakes, venison with watercress salad, lemon-lime coconut rice pudding.

Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar; accommodates children; patio.