Stumbling onto a haute hide-out
by Stephen Heuser
Once upon a time the best restaurants in every city served more or less the
same menu of rich, creamy, standardized French food.
Today the old order has passed, and top restaurants seem to take pride in their
willingness to introduce tobiko or king oyster mushrooms into just about
anything. Traditional fancy food -- the hotel-style,
Châteaubriand-with-sauce-béarnaise kind of cooking -- survives
only in a few recalcitrant pockets, such as this unlikely spot in Brighton
Jasmine Bistro |
412 Market Street, Brighton
Open Tues-Sun, 5-11 p.m.
AE, MC, Visa
Beer and wine
Jasmine Bistro is a two-window storefront with a blue-green awning and no more
than 30 seats inside -- not, certainly, the kind of place you expect to find
someone who has cooked at Maxim's. But it's true, the owner did work at
Maxim's; Naz Khan is an Afghan-born chef whose culinary training occurred in
Budapest and Paris, and who also worked locally at that grand dowager of a
dining room, the Café Budapest. This may explain (if anything can) why
the menu is evenly divided between French and Hungarian dishes.
It does not really explain the décor, a homey mishmash of decades,
styles, and textures. Hunting prints hang next to geometric glass light
fixtures; the plaster walls look like meringue. There is a giant tropical fish
tank. But the most memorable thing -- and the touch that ties it all together
-- is the fabric of the tablecloths: every table is covered with a fascinating,
deep-red fabric woven with gold thread and bits of mirror. The fabric is
handmade in Baluchistan as a covering for Afghani feast cushions; here in
Brighton, the effect is like eating dinner on a Klimt painting.
The Hungarian-French combination on the menu was a new one on me. But Hungarian
food, which I had always thought of as spicy peasant stews (goulash, the
national dish, reputedly originated as a shepherd's dinner stored in a sheep
stomach), turns out to be surprisingly amenable to the cream-sauce-and-mushroom
treatment, and sits easily cheek-by-jowl with old-style French classics.
There is also a menu of Middle Eastern and "Near Eastern" (read: Persian and
Afghan) dishes cooked by Jasmine Khan, wife of the owner. And beyond that, some
flights of fancy. For instance: a special of chilled papaya-mint soup ($6), an
orange-colored purée in which the tropical flavor of papaya was set
against the light herbal taste of mint, all zipped up with a squeeze of lemon
and a splash of Sauternes.
Another dish I'd never seen before was the hearts of palm salad ($5.50) -- at
least not done this way. Hearts of palm are usually sliced into short lengths
and tossed into something; here they were left several inches long, stacked in
a little pyramid on mesclun leaves, and served in a buttermilk dressing. This
being a restaurant with classical roots, there's also an appetizer of escargot
($8.25) -- 10 fat snail meats, not in the shell, served on a stainless plate in
hot buttery oil, with crisped bits of garlic.
The whole point of most nouveau cuisines is that if you use really good
ingredients, you don't need sauce -- at least not sauce in the grand hotel
style. But what happens if you use really good ingredients and sauce?
This seems to be the idea at Jasmine, where a classic Hungarian dish like
chicken paprikás (pronounced "paprikash," $13) is made with
chunks of startlingly high-quality white chicken breast, firm and juicy. They
sit on angel-hair pasta with a rich, buttery paprika sauce. I don't cook with
paprika -- I've always found the taste harsh -- but this sauce seemed
different. The reason, it turns out, is that the sauce uses multiple paprikas,
both mild and spicy, as well as a homemade curry powder.
I noticed the same buttery-rich qualities in the beef gulyás, or goulash
($14.50), which was not, as I'd expected, a bowl of peppery stew. It was chunks
of medium-rare steak served with quartered new potatoes in a lovely rich sauce.
The beef was fillet. (All the beef here is fillet. If Jasmine Bistro offered a
hamburger, it would be ground fillet.) It was delicious, as was beef stroganoff
(fillet again, $18.95). Stroganoff has gained a terrible reputation in the
cafeterias of this great land, so I was kind of expecting thick goo served over
egg noodles. Instead, this was medium-rare meat in a velvety light cream sauce
incorporating at least three different kinds of mushroom (including, I believe,
the king oyster). "Tournedos à la gourmet" ($22.50), with that wonderful
cruise-ship name, was a nice piece of beef with a shiitake-mushroom sauce and
one big shrimp laid on top. Both the stroganoff and the tournedos came with an
aromatic rice pilaf stacked into a little tetrahedron.
The house wines rotate, and the service is great: our waiter swirled a glass of
chardonnay madly to release the aromas before giving it to us for a taste. The
wine list is arranged like a face book -- each wine gets its own page, with a
label and a description. (I like this; it makes wine-ordering more like
shopping and less like reading an inventory printout.) At any rate, we had a
bottle of Guenoc petite syrah, a deep and muscular red, for $30. I called
around afterward and couldn't find a store that sold it for less than $21 --
which, if you know anything about restaurant wine pricing, makes this
practically a gift. The wine could have been served a few degrees cooler (it
was stored near the heat of the kitchen), but honestly it was such a good deal
that I didn't have the heart to be fussy.
Desserts were competent and basic. A slice of bread pudding ($5.50) had
elaborate ribbons of caramel across the top; basic apple strudel ($5.50) came
in a flaky puff pastry. The dessert with the most flair was two plump
strawberries enrobed in excellent dark Belgian chocolate ($2).
Jasmine feels like a place out of time. The food is good but not showy; the
waiters know every dish inside and out. They're also Naz Khan's sons. They've
been there for all seven years that Jasmine Bistro has existed, and the
tropical fish, which have also been there seven years, will follow Ray Khan's
hand as he flutters it from across the room. And you watch, amazed that fish
can be trained, and amazed that a restaurant can stay open serving
stroganoff for seven years in the most ridiculously schizophrenic period of our
Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser[a]phx.com.
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