Stylish, New Upscale Fusion Hot Spot Fails Across The Board
Everything went so badly, really, on a recent Saturday night at Jesse Wong’s Kitchen that “Jesse Wong” suggests itself as new Cockney rhyming slang (à la “Pete Tong”) for anything you’d looked forward to that ended up going badly: “Oh, the evening at the opera went Jesse Wong—the soprano was hoarse, they ran out of vodka at the lobby bar, and I lost my cell phone.”
Presented as the crown jewel of the recently revealed Hunt Valley Towne Center, Jesse Wong’s Kitchen is the newest restaurant from the Columbia-based restaurateur whose first two projects, Jesse Wong’s Asean Bistro and Jesse Wong’s Hong Kong, have secured admiring followings. The brand-new Kitchen is an impressively lively place to walk into—curved carpeted platforms, vertically defined by purple and red partial walls, sweep and rise back from a room-wide open kitchen. On the shiny marble floor in between sits a stylish sushi bar, outfitted with mammoth flower arrangements, nearby which a piano and cello duo delivers renditions of “My Heart Will Go On” and “Let It Be.” These flashy but formulaic details accumulate into something like a secondary casino or a new university dining hall.
The chaotic platforming and partitioning inevitably create a few unkind corner areas, and we were seated in one of them. Our table, though, was set nicely with elaborately folded purple napkins and lovely little bamboo chopstick rests. A female server, dressed in a kimono-style uniform, brought us our menus (male servers get to wear comfortable and efficient shirts and slacks), and Jesse Wong’s menu is a big problem. There are two vertical lists of entrées. The items listed on the left are highlights of a four-course dinner (to which can be added an appetizer, soup, and salad), priced from $27 to $45. The list on the right offers à la carte choices priced from $15 to $30.
Because some items appear on both lists (but, annoyingly, not in the same order), and because ordering complete dinners isn’t manifestly a better deal, many diners may spend the first part of their evening not engaged in lively conversation but performing cost-benefit analysis. This kind of deductive ordering takes all the fun out of assembling a meal. A much bigger problem: ordering a four-course meal and having it hurled at you in rapid succession, the entrée arriving with your half-eaten bowl of soup still on the table.
Although the restaurant’s carry-out menu lists standard kung pao, moo shu Chinese fare, the Saturday night menu focuses on Jesse Wong’s more elegant and ambitious cuisine—fusion fare such as pan-seared scallops with tropical salsa, spicy-sour Assam Maya shrimp, grilled New Zealand lamb chops. Fine, if it works. Sometimes, it came close, like the snowy-white and flaky Chilean sea bass with truffles ($33, dinner), undone, amid all this chaos, by the soy-shallot sauce that had started to wander and separate on its trip from the kitchen. Sometimes things were just boringly indistinct, like the monochromatic quadruple flavors ($22), a brown-sauce stir fry of chewy shrimp, roast pork, chicken, and beef, which was nothing better than what any neighborhood shop would deliver—one taste and you’ve got it.
A few times, it was really bad. The scented yogurt sauce of vanilla shrimp ($33, dinner), served with fruit salad, sounds refreshing, something the texture and flavor of mayonnaise glopped onto the shrimp wasn’t. What should have been arrestingly composed looked thrown together—slivers of barely identifiable fruit instead of hand-arranged pieces of colorful juicy exotica. And Wong’s famous chicken ($29, dinner), its version of General Cho’s, is just loathsome, minus not only the home-style version’s pleasurably decadent mouth-feel but also all perceptible flavor. No one even wanted to take it home for refrigerator raiding.
Starters were rocky. Fleeting admiration for shrimp toast ($7), served on slices of toasted baguette, was negated by shrimp-and-pork dumplings that has little flavor either steamed or fried. The lovely crunch of a simple sweet-sour cabbage salad ($4) wilted in the shadows of a badly composed Vietnamese salad ($6), a dead ringer for the vanilla shrimp’s dull accompaniment. Tempura calamari ($9) was chewy, its Thai chili dipping sauce very much too sweet.
Unknown to us, another friend was eating at Jesse Wong’s Kitchen this same evening. He recounted a much different, much better meal, the kind of meal that we were expecting before everything went Jesse Wong.