By ROBIN GARR
It must have been the middle 1970s when we suddenly realized that it wasnâ€™t necessary to keep all our food from touching on the plate, and that there were more exciting things to eat than Momâ€™s steak and potatoes and tuna fish casserole.
Not least of all these happy discoveries was Chinese food. We had only about three Chinese-American eateries here then, so the arrival of the first real Szechwan restaurants in the late â€™70s was about as big a deal as the first pizzeria or the construction of the St. Matthews mall or the JFK bridge.
Americans usually think of Sichuanese food as hot-and-spicy, because that was the â€œwow!â€ character that made it stand out from Chinese-American. But authentic Sichuanese is much more complex, relying on a well-crafted blend of seven flavors: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty.
Even in a city now blessed with quite a few Chinese restaurants that welcome westerners to order from an authentic Chinese menu, Jasmine stands out, thanks to the team of Chef Lan Lin, a skilled chef from Sichuan, and his wife, Lan Zhang.
Jasmine has been open since 2004 in English Villa, off English Station Road a short hop out Shelbyville Road from the Gene Snyder, but it moved three years ago into larger, more sophisticated quarters a door or two from its original spot.
It offers an extensive menu of more than 100 selections, including both familiar Chinese-American and authentic Sichuanese, with many dishes priced well under $10, and only some seafood, beef and lamb dishes topping out around $12. The adventurous carnivore may venture into offal (kidneys, liver, even intestines, er, chitlins), while thereâ€™s plenty of less challenging authentic dishes that donâ€™t require going quite that far down the road.
We stopped in for lunch, sticking to the Sichuanese side of the menu save for a simple but delicious egg roll ($1.50), and were completely pleased with food, mood and service.
Shared scallion pancake ($1.99) and cold cucumber salad ($4.99) made an impressive appetizer course. The pancake, the size of a dinner plate and cut pizza-style in eight wedges, was made of flaky pastry almost reminiscent of Greek phyllo, studded with aromatic chopped scallions. The salad, beautifully arranged in a spiral of paper-thin seeded cucumber slices cut on long diagonals, was cool yet fiery, drenched with a delicious spicy chile oil.
Although our server was courteous and fluent, Mary ran into a slight language barrier when she requested her cumin beef ($7.25 on the lunch menu). What she said was, â€œnot too spicy.â€ What the server apparently heard was, â€œhot and spicy.â€ We gave this iconic West China Muslim dish maybe 4 1/2 or 5 chile peppers on a five-pepper scale, but it was still outstanding: Tender stew beef stir-fried with fiery chile peppers and scallions, served with excellent fried rice.
Hot pepper potatoes ($7.99) was an interesting, offbeat dish, perhaps my first encounter with potatoes on a Chinese menu. Long, thin strips of potato were stir-fried crisp-tender with strips of green bell pepper and, apparently, lots of fiery chiles in the stir-fry oil but discarded before service. It was an altogether new take on potatoes that definitely woke up my taste buds.
A hearty lunch for two, with a pot of hot tea and plenty of leftovers to take home in styro boxes, came to $27.53, plus a $6 tip.
13825 English Villa Drive