Arts and Entertainment
By Paul Reidinger
A FEW YEARS ago a friend and I, traveling home from Italy, stopped in Milan for an evening a pause to refresh before an obscenely early flight the next morning out of Malpensa airport (conveniently located 35 trainless miles from the city center). Since it was early to bed, it was even earlier to dine, and so we started scouting locations at what would have been a reasonable hour in the United States. Yet our plight was dire; although the Italians aren't nearly as desultory as the incomparable Spanish about extending the dinner hour to midnight and beyond, we soon discovered that, so far as the city's restaurants were concerned, we were like pathetic party guests showing up three hours early. Most of the places through whose windows we hopefully peered hadn't even turned on their lights yet. But ... I kept noticing all these green neon signs announcing "ristorante cinese." Chinese restaurant. They were the only non-Italian restaurants we seemed to be able to find and maybe they would open a bit earlier. Except they didn't.
Eventually the owner of a glassy trattoria in a restored palazzo took pity on us and fed us antipasti, pizza, pasta. It was delicious, but on the (endless) flight home I found myself wondering about all those ristoranti cinesi. Chinese food in Italy? The very idea seemed perverse, and yet or perhaps for that very reason one could not get it out of one's head. Would one be serenaded by Verdi arias while attacking the kung pao chicken?
Strange to say, that's exactly the experience you can give yourself if you stop in for some Chinese at Jasmine Tea House, a recently refurbished spot on a stretch of Mission Street (around 29th and 30th Streets) that's rapidly becoming a restaurant row to be reckoned with. All the sensory cues suggest an Italian wedding: pastel pink walls, like the icing on a huge tiered cake; country-style wooden chairs; opera floating from a radio in the kitchen. You sit down, half-expecting to be served a complimentary flute of Asti Spumante.
Instead it's a pot of green tea that arrives forthwith, and maybe that's just as well, since tea is healthy full of antioxidants and flavonoids while Asti Spumante is ... sweet. I have a sweet-toothed friend who likes it for that very reason, yet he did not really care for one of the most unusual items on Jasmine's menu, the Shanghai fillet ($9.95), which consisted of two pieces of flounder, crisped to gold and topped with a sauce of pine nuts, honey, and candied ginger. The sauce was sweet in the edgy, adult way one associates with European desserts, and I must say I thought it was spectacular.
On the other hand, my companion did adore his Peking duck ($10.95 for half a bird) chunks of dark boneless meat with crinkly skin the color of a tarnished penny still attached, a heap of scallions cut into matchsticks, a shallow dish filled with hoisin sauce, and steamed buns within which all the other ingredients were to be assembled into a kind of sandwich, unless you were this particular friend, in which case you concentrated on the duck, with an occasional dip into the hoisin.
Jasmine's menu is full of familiar standards, but they are prepared with a care and an attention to freshness that lift them above the mundane. There's even the occasional California twist unexpected chunks of mango in the shrimp roll ($2.25), for instance, which deepen and enrich the briny sweetness of the prawns. But even dishes that lack those little innovations can be exquisite; sew mai ($2.25), for instance, squat, translucent, slightly dimpled cylinders filled with minced pork and cabbage, glistened as if newly born.
On the other hand, there is the occasional pitfall, filled with deep-frying oil. The appetizer combination plate ($6.25) features crab puffs (crustacean meat mixed with cream cheese), chicken wings, egg rolls, and pot stickers all of it deep-fried except the last. You're better off opening with a soup, and the house special noodle soup ($6.95), in particular a jackpot of chicken chunks, shrimp, scallops, and spaghetti-like noodles in a powerfully beefy broth with the faintest breath of spiciness leaves nothing to be desired.
That one dish, in fact, would make a serviceable lunch for two people. But at the noon hour Jasmine offers a wide selection of dishes in the $4 to $5 range, including an onion-studded Mongolian beef ($4.50), with remarkably tender meat, and kung pao chicken ($4.50), laced with chopped peppers whose reds and greens are so oddly reminiscent of the Italian flag. (Lunch specials are also served with an opener of sweet-and-sour or some other soup.)
At some point I suppose, in the interests of symmetry, I will have to go to China and see whether Chinese cities are full of Italian restaurants. If so, they're in good company, for most of the cities of northern and central Europe (excepting, of course, Paris, a food reality unto itself) are already rich in Chinese places. (Italian too.) They are the two great ancient cuisines, after all; since the days of the silk route, they've been intertwined one way or another. Will we see, opening soon near Jasmine Tea House, a pasta parlor decorated with porcelain pagodas and featuring chopsticks instead of flatware? Just noodling.
Jasmine Tea House. 3253 Mission (at Fear), S.F. (415) 826-6288. Daily, 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Beer and wine. Not noisy. Limited wheelchair accessibility.