Tuesday, January 4, 2011. Guidelines. Jazmine. When I can't think of where to go for dinner, I refer to two routines to inspire some direction. The first is to head up Magazine Street. The radio station is on Magazine at Poydras, and from there to the Audubon Park end are some seventy-five restaurants. It will be a long time before that fails to bring me to a place that I need to visit for review purposes.
The second source of ideas is my long-running, often-preempted eating schedule:
Monday: Neighborhood café
Tuesday: Ethnic restaurant
Friday: Big deal place
Weekends: Whatever the Marys tell me
I hesitate to state the above in public. It surely will trigger some crank to say that I am insisting everybody should eat Italian food only on Wednesdays. What ancient survival value was there in according nearly-random habits the force of religious law? People are still doing so, and hating one another when their guidelines differ even slightly.
Following those guidelines worked for me tonight. I wound up at Jazmine, the Vietnamese restaurant near the corner of South Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues. I'd never been there before, and on this semi-chilly night I thought a bowl of soup or the like would feel as well as taste good.
Started with a Vietnamese beer (Saigon) and the vegetarian summer roll--a fried roll stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, with a sweet chili sauce for dipping. It was a little oily but otherwise fine. Then the cup of "house soup" that came with the entree. This was chicken noodle, Asian style. Light and subtle, nice and hot.
Most Asian menus have a Chef's Specialties section. It usually takes up an entire page in bigger type. The prices are bigger than those on the rest of the menu, too. Nothing else about the Chef's Specialties is predictable. Some of the dishes are indeed unique and intriguing. Some are well-known dishes with a certain razzmatazz--sizzling rice, for example.
A lot of Chef's Specialties, however, are nothing more than standard dishes made not with your choice of chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, or fish, but chicken and pork and shrimp and beef and fish. Such dishes usually have the words "family" or "dragon" in their names. Rather than harmonious, they're studies in how too many flavors in a dish can cancel each other out, resulting in not much taste at all. But such Chef's Specialties are popular, because the undisciplined American palate believes that adding one more thing to a dish always makes it better. (Especially if it's bacon or cheese.)
Sweet Heat Noodles from Jazmine's Chef's Specialties list sounded like one of the house originals. I like sweet heat, and the rest of it--chicken, shrimp, green onions, peanuts, carrots-- sounded interesting. The waitress thought this would be something I'd like.
Sweet Heat Noodles was in fact a tasty dish, all the components coming together nicely. Good sauce, slippery but firm noodles, interesting ground-peanut garnish. But my first bite told me something the menu hadn't: this was ninety percent identical to pad thai, the most popular dish in Thai restaurants the world over. No reason why they shouldn't served it here, but if I'd known that's what it was I probably would have ordered something else. I've already had my pad thai quota for this winter season.
Oh, well. Not the restaurant's fault. And I couldn't complain about the price (barely over $10 for everything). Or the service. The restaurant wasn't busy; they may have had more staff than customers when I arrived. I think I was tended to by every one of the servers at some point during the night.
Two days later, someone called me on the air about Jazmine and said he thought they had the best pho with steak in town. That's what I will have next time. Even though to my palate pho is the most fantastically overrated dish in our local restaurants, it's still the standard dish of Vietnamese restaurants for most customers. And I must serve my readers.
Jazmine Cafe. Riverbend: 614 S Carrollton Ave. 504-866-9301.