Jasmine Provincial Vietnamese Restaurant: Learning from the Master

There’s a new alternative to standing in the rain on Jackson Street.

By the time Tamarind Tree opened on Jackson Street in 2004, Seattle had already cultivated a special fondness for Vietnamese cuisine. Rare is the city in which so many white people can pronounce "fuh" correctly. And Monsoon's Eric and Sophie Banh had long proved that Vietnamese flavors were sophisticated enough to justify wine pairings and $20 entrées. But Tamarind Tree, with its massive menu of unfamiliar dishes, its room decorated in gorgeous sunset hues and bamboo woods, and its family-friendly prices, hit a sweet spot that turned fondness into big business. It was good enough to draw Seattle's Vietnamese community, yet accessible enough to attract everyone else. Diners who had never dared step foot in a banh mi shop were soon ordering the "seven courses of beef" meal with lychee martinis and pandan ice cream for dessert. These days, if you're not the kind of person who likes to wait in a dingy parking lot in the rain for 45 minutes, you need to make an online reservation before you go. Not surprisingly, other restaurateurs have been studying Tamarind Tree's formula. And by "studying" I mean "blatantly copying." Last year, a Renton restaurant named Lemon Leaf opened, with the same clean urban feel, same color scheme, same price range, and many of the same dishes on the menu. Not long after, Saigon Pearl, a tiny noodle–rice plate shop above the QFC on Broadway and Pike, acquired new owners who painted the room an earthy red, bought better china, and renamed the place "Tangerine Tree." (Did they think drunk hipsters wouldn't notice?) Because it takes three to make a trend, joining the two is 5-month-old Jasmine Provincial Vietnamese Restaurant, on MLK Way where it meets up with Rainier. Jasmine has studied Tamarind Tree very carefully, including the "provincial Vietnamese cuisine" in its title, the formally dressed waiters who ferry drinks to your table and sweetly inform you that half of your order is unavailable that night, and the pledge on its menu to donate part of the proceeds to nonprofits in Vietnam. Just as butter-yellow was the dominant color for upscale bistros in the '90s, Tamarind Tree is decorated in the standard upmarket Asian restaurant colors of red, gold/orange, and jade. Jasmine's copied that palette, but its decorating sense reminds me more authentically of Vietnam: Its reds are just a little more hot cherry, its jades a riper shade of lime; the round club chairs circling the tables along the front and side walls are upholstered with Tang-colored seats and peacock-green backs. The decorators have bedazzled the room with clusters of tea lights, a stone fountain whose base emits a ghostly mist, a light display over the bar that hits all the colors in the rainbow, a puppy-shaped humidifier, and, oh, a baby grand piano. Jasmine's menu also has the scope and breadth of Tamarind Tree's, and the same baroque, Microsoftian information architecture. Beyond all the basic noodle soups and cold noodle bowls and spring rolls, many of the dishes Tamarind Tree introduced to Seattle show up at Jasmine: You may recognize the bon bon salad (made with a pickled Asian fruit), the turmeric coconut rice cakes, or the tender chayote prawns. I've visited Lemon Leaf three times, and it has never given me any compelling reason to recommend Seattleites drive 15 miles south to Renton (though if you do, get the stuffed squid and the beef luc loc). Jasmine is another story. It's no Tamarind Tree yet—the kitchen is still a little scattershot—but I had a number of dishes that were just as good, and as a bonus, you can still get a walk-in table on a Saturday night. The tamarind roasted quails, for example, three half-birds to a plate, are lacquered in a thick, tangy glaze and grilled until the tips of the wings and legs are blackened and crisped, but the meat is exquisitely tender. With the quail comes a small bowl of salt and pepper, along with a lime segment, which you squeeze into it to make a salty paste; just touching the meat to its surface charges the meat with a palate-zapping electricity that crackles and dissipates just as the mild sweetness of the meat comes through. A pineapple salad, mixed with great chunks of crinkle-cut carrots, radishes, cucumbers, and fried shallots, has a similar charge, the sweetness of the fruit ionized by a fish-sauce dressing and Thai basil. The problem is consistency, which I think comes from Jasmine's attempt to match TT's grand scale without the volume of customers yet to support it. I wish there was some predicting which of the 100-plus dishes would cause my toes to curl and which wouldn't—but there was no looking for a specific regional style, since the dishes on the menu represented the entire length of the country, from Hanoi grilled pork all the way down to southern sour fish stew. I couldn't identify an area of expertise either. The kitchen has a way with salads, but not with stir-fried vegetables—both the green beans and the ong choi, a crunchy, hollow green, came out just limp and garlicky. The waiters' recommendations didn't help, either: "Crispy fish with tamarind sauce" turned out to be a thin fish steak covered in a gloopy, sour sauce, and a promising-sounding tamarind-dill soup came full of tender fish, fat prawns, and tomatoes, but the cooks had miscalibrated the balance between the sweet-tart broth and the dill, an herb that calls for other savory flavors. Maybe the waiters just thought all Westerners loved tamarind. Still, you'd have to work hard to push the check up past $25 a person. And for that price I'm willing to overlook a lackluster soup or plate of veggies if it also means discovering dishes like the thumb-sized squid stuffed with ground pork and showered in roasted peanuts and herbs, or the French-influenced beef stew. With its big chunks of beef, potatoes, and carrots, the stew looks like something your bonne-maman would have cooked, until you dip a piece of baguette into the red-tinged broth and come back with not-so-French layers of tang and spice. My favorite discovery—it even appears to be unique to the restaurant—is the poetically named "Jasmine blue pearl," balls of crispy fried rice which, when you bite into them, release a custardy wash from the yolk of a quail egg at the pearl's center. This town is big enough for two mid-priced Vietnamese bistros, and south-end Seattleites in search of date-night splurges like baby clams with rice cracker and lotus-root salad don't need to drive to the ID anymore. But I do wish Jasmine would have taken some of its cues from another local success story. Green Leaf, a minuscule, stylish noodle shop on Eighth and Jackson, has kept its menu modest in order to make every dish look—and taste—like it was destined for a VIP table. Only last week, after three good years in business, did the restaurant expand into a second floor. jkauffman@seattleweeklycom ====================== PRICE CHECK Stuffed squid: $6.75 Roasted quails: $7.75 Jasmine blue pearl: $8.75 Pineapple salad: $7.75 Fish with tamarind sauce: $12.75

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