If you've been to Wild Ginger, the former stomping grounds of James Beard Award-winning chef Jeem Lock, you know it's a crowd-pleasing pan-Asian palace with a menu full of tasty and unthreatening concoctions inspired by China, Thailand, Vietnam and beyond.
Lock's new place, Jeem Asian Restaurant, is a little different. Located in Redmond's Overlake Village shopping center, just off 520, Jeem is inexpensive and casual. It's a verdant banquet hall of a restaurant specializing in dim sum and other traditional Chinese fare.
And by "traditional Chinese fare," I mean "dishes you wouldn't find at Wild Ginger in a million years."
"Oh my goodness," brooded our waiter when we ordered the Preserved Vegetables and Side Pork. "Are you sure? It's a very traditional Chinese dish. The pork is thick." He held his hands several inches apart to indicate the thickness of the impending pork. "Has thick layer of fat." Naturally, we had to order it, and naturally it was delicious, a huge portion of red-cooked pork belly, also known as fresh bacon.
That's not to say that every dish at Jeem would make a waiter blanch at the thought of a non-Chinese patron ordering it.
Jeem sports a satay bar with a familiar assortment of skewered meats. The chicken satay ($2 per skewer) is perfectly cooked, and the meat had spent quality time in a lemongrass-heavy marinade. Beef and pork satays are equally good, and while a skewer of scallops ($6) could have come off the grill slightly sooner, the sweetness of the bivalves was unimpeachable. Each plate of satay comes with tasty house-made cucumber and carrot pickles, and the pork satay includes an unusual sweet dipping sauce made from raisins, plum sauce, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.
At dinner, every entree — 40 choices — is the same price. A meal for two (soup, rice, and two main dishes) is $19.50, and each additional main dish (with soup and rice to match) is another $9.
There's also an inexpensive lunch menu, nothing more than $9 (lunch would be the best time to visit solo, as Jeem is geared toward groups). The menu visits some familiar regions of China (there is minced pork with tofu from Sichuan and no dearth of Cantonese dishes), and detours into other parts of Asia on a separate menu. In addition to those delicious satays, this auxiliary menu includes Thai curry noodles (khao soi, $7) bathed in a slurpable coconut milk broth and topped with a crisp nest of fried noodles.
These are tasty vestiges of the restaurant's original pan-Asian concept; they've dropped plans to add sushi and are instead keeping their focus on Chinese food, which is clearly playing well: The restaurant draws a healthy stream of Chinese and non-Chinese customers. Lock clearly enjoys being the impresario; I've never been to Jeem without seeing him hanging out in the dining room meeting and greeting. It's good to be the chef.
While our waiter was again concerned, Free-Range Chicken cooked in a Wine Sauce turned out to be an uncontroversial Cantonese dish of subtly flavored boiled chicken, served cold. Enoki mushrooms came with baby corn and bok choy, wood ears and white fungus, the latter a spongy mushroom whose cartilaginous texture I quite enjoy.
Speaking of cartilaginous, we had strongly sesame-flavored strips of jellyfish over sliced beef. "I can't believe I'm saying this," said one of my dinner companions, "but I like the jellyfish better than the beef." I had to agree. Jellyfish, the tofu of the sea, is brilliant at soaking up flavors, but the overly sweet and dense rounds of beef needed help.
Other entrees were hit and miss. A curry seafood and vegetable hot pot was thoroughly bland. Dry fried string beans were spicy and well-sauced but the beans were overgrown and chalky, a common problem with green beans in late summer. An order of bitter melon and beef arrived as bitter melon and pork, but this was one of my favorites, slices of the pungent vegetable stir-fried with pork in a tangy black bean sauce.
The best time to visit Jeem is in the late morning for dim sum (served daily). While the selection of plates is standard, the kitchen is judicious with the pork fat and liberal with vegetables; this is a dim sum that won't fulfill your RDA of grease. I tasted a medley of shrimp dumplings, including a fresh-flavored combination of shrimp and pea vines, and a shaggy-looking but delicious pan-fried shrimp and chive dumpling. Even the fried pork dumpling was light and crisp and went down easy.
Plates are priced from $2.40 to $3, and an illustrated guide will help you identify what's on the carts that go by frequently. We ate beyond our fill and ended up spending $12 per person including tax and tip. Satays are also available at dim sum at their regular prices.
Dessert is limited to a couple of sorbets and ice creams ($2), but on one visit, we received an unusual complimentary dessert, a small bowl of coconut soup with tapioca and taro, the perfect little sweet after a big plate of pork belly. Next time the dessert was a steaming bowl of green lentils with boiled peanuts and plenty of sugar. These are Chinese tonic soups, originally meant to cure a variety of ills, and the sweetened lentil soup certainly cured me of the consumption, if you catch my drift.
Not every dish at Jeem has the sparkle of the satays and dim sum, but the low prices and the comfortable bustle of the surroundings make it a spot worth knowing about. Plus, how often do you get to scare a waiter?
Matthew Amster-Burton: email@example.com