Oh, Crystal Jade, you had me at hot tea.
The jasmine aroma, the steaming liquid, the perfectly hot metal pot — they comforted instantly on a cold day.
The wonton soup worked its magic: fresh slices of scallion floating in a glistening broth, one fat dumpling (more seasoned pork than noodle, with the occasional crunch of ginger), and a few strips of Chinese-barbecued pork.
By the time I got to the lemak chicken, I was ready to propose.
And a menu with as many flavorful surprises (Malaysian, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and American) as Chinese-American standards only reinforced the deal: Here's a new Asian eatery worthy of love.
Owners Shirley Sieng and Steve Yau are no newcomers to Asian cooking. Their 12 years of experience at the still popular Jade Palace in Bellevue — and their unyielding hospitality and creativity — show in their latest venture, launched in late October in a former Village Inn.
The place is hard to see when you're cruising down 72nd Street, but it's easy to get to: Turn west on Cedar Street when you see the Omaha Travel and Transport building. If you hit Wal-Mart (to the north) or Mercy Road (to the south), you've missed your turn.
Don't let the hastily painted “open” sign deter you. Inside, granite tabletops, modern metal chairs and varied shades of green — perfect for a restaurant called Jade — help camouflage the Village Inn bones.
And, even if you've been burned eating Chinese food in former diners, the cleanliness, the flavors and the friendly service here will restore your hope.
The Malaysian pad thai was subtle and delicious, with wide flat noodles that seemed to soak up more of the layered but not-too-hot, peanut-flecked sauce.
Lemak chicken was a sweet and mildly spicy delight — slivers of meat in a silky yellow sauce of lemongrass-infused coconut milk with bamboo shoots, pineapple and red chili flakes. The dish gets its name from the Malay word for coconut, its color from pineapple juice and turmeric. And the fruit chunks — hot little explosions of tropical goodness — just seemed to make it sing.
Yau told me later that lemak is a specialty of the region where he grew up and one of the only curry-type dishes he can make without chili heat.
The true curries all begin with chili-laced pastes, he said, which is fine by me.
The yellow curry looked gray-green compared to the lemak and included chunks of potatoes, green pepper and onions — a combination that struck me as more Indian. But Yau said potato curries are common in his native Malaysia, too. If you have it after tasting the lemak, as I did, its flavors initially might seem muddled. But after a few bites, its greener and more biting heat and starchier sauce held their own.
Another Malaysian specialty at Crystal Jade is rendang — a tasty meat dish in a spice- and chili-laden sauce Yau thickens and sweetens, as his mother did, with roasted and finely ground coconut. We had the beef version, served with a sweet-and-sour garnish of house-pickled cabbage, carrots and celery.
The house special Chinese pan-fried noodles involved carrots, broccoli, slippery straw mushrooms and beef, chicken and shrimp atop a tangle of thin noodles fried to a crispy gold. The star of the dish was a remarkably good brown sauce — salty and bright and balanced enough to lighten the occasionally greasy noodles. Sieng later confided the sauce's secret ingredient: rice wine Yau makes himself.
I also enjoyed the crispy eggplant and pork — an unusual, winning combination that first caught on at Jade Palace. The eggplant is battered and fried and tossed with thin ribbons of stir-fried pork and carrot in a smooth, sweet-savory sauce. The textural contrasts make the dish — even if you're not particularly fond of eggplant.
Chopsticks are available but were not automatically supplied with anything we tried except the chom pong noodles — a giant bowl of Korean soup with assorted proteins and spaghetti-sized lo mein noodles. We let it cool slightly, and I fear we didn't taste it at its peak. By the time we dove in, the noodles were water-logged, the small scallops overcooked. But I loved the broth, the spicy sort that makes your nose run. (We asked for it spicy hot. If you don't ask and don't look Asian, Sieng said, they'll hold back the heat.)
The tiny salad bar (iceberg lettuce, crisply fried wonton strips, and an assortment of house-made dressings) offered with every entrée struck me as nice but unnecessary. Sieng said later she added it because she's a salad nut and a mom who wants folks to get their vegetables.
I ran out of time and room to try the few Vietnamese and Indian dishes or any of the American fare, save one well-seasoned and velvety potato soup. And I'd still like to bring a big group there for one of the family style dinners.
Crystal Jade seemed very kid-friendly. A couple with an 8-month-old daughter got a warm welcome one night — a ready highchair and a server who doted on the child.
The same server knew the food well, kept glasses full and was friendly and accommodating. And Sieng herself made the rounds, leaning in to ask ladies young and old, “How was everything, sweetie?”
Alas, the only desserts available when we asked were fortune cookies. Sieng told me later that they sometimes have cheesecake or ice cream or lychee (the fruit). And, she said, Yau can almost always whip up some fried bananas.
Even without dessert, entrée portions were big enough for two.
The plates were prettier at dinnertime, though, adorned with vegetable roses (slices of daikon or turnip, dyed beet red and artfully folded and fastened with toothpicks).
On separate lunch visits, we averaged about $12 per person (for soup, salad, hot tea, entree, tax, tip and leftovers). And for appetizers, drinks, entrees and enough leftovers for lunch the next day, we spent $59 with tax and tip at a dinner for three.
Though Crystal Jade is busier on weekday lunches, when it sees office-worker traffic, it doesn't have many residential neighbors to draw from on evenings and weekends. I often found myself among only a handful of diners.
Sieng said she's not sure why it's been so slow — “the economy, the location, us?”
Here's hoping it's just that word hasn't gotten out about this three-month-old gem.
It's a standout anyone would feel lucky to find.