Step into the Jade Theater and you’ll think you’ve stepped outside of San Diego. While the sleek, Asian-themed restaurant, bar, and nightclub might not transport you to Asia, it will certainly make you think you’ve landed in L.A. or New York. Think low light, dramatic design, and a scene that makes the surf and the sand seem so…yesterday. Then there’s Chef James Montejano’s exquisite menu, which includes vivid, Asian-themed preparations such as the Lobster Trilogy, Char Sui Duck, and Sugar Spiced Salmon. Transform your experience from exquisite to elite with the Mercy of the Chef experience—with a private table for ten, a custom tasting menu with wine pairings, and a glimpse into the kitchen through a live video display, no dining experience will ever seem the same.Read More ...
The Jade Theater, which opened its doors on 7th and C Street in late 2007, brings an elegant playground to downtown’s burgeoning night life scene. While the unassuming building is hardly noticeable from the outside—save for an illuminated Chinese character above the door—inside, a theater of delights plays out on three floors.
The dramatic main entrance leads to the lounge level, where a stark white bar beckons with an illuminated glow. Sleek white room dividers create separate lounge areas, where low leather couches and ottomans create a casual, living-room feel. Above the bar, high ceilings lead up to a mezzanine level, where a formal dining room overlooks the informal space below. Below ground, a cavernous third level makes the space above seem heavenly, with a dimly lit nightclub and VIP lounge.
Casual noshing is encouraged, and the full dinner menu is offered in the bar, as well as every other area of the restaurant. At Jade, dining is about comfort—your personal comfort—and it's up to you to decide whether you'd like to casually lounge on sleek leather couches, opt for more traditional table and chairs, or take your sustenance into the underworld in one of the opium-den style VIP lounges below.
After a round of creative cocktails from the resident mixologist at the bar, we opt for the mezzanine level, relishing in the open-air vibe and relaxed setting of the most traditional dining option. We find ourselves surrounded in white—white leather chairs, white walls, and translucent shadow boxes that hold exquisite white orchids. We snag a table against the clear balcony that overlooks the bar, giving us a prime birds-eye-view of patrons below. At eye level, we are graced with a dance of dangling pendant lights, a wood-paneled wall, and views of translucent dividers filled with bamboo. Suddenly, it seems San Diego has vanished, and we have been swept away to an imaginary Asian city where minimal elegance mixed with exquisite beauty is the fashion du jour.
Like its choice of seating options, Jade's menu lets guests choose a nourishment strategy, whether that means an ongoing selection of small plates, one oversized entree, or a yet-uncharted combination of the two. The menu is, as Executive Chef James Montejano prefers to describe it, "a play on courses," with sections dubbed: “Tease,” “Taste,” “Eat,” and “Treat,” and no rules for what to order and when.
Chef Montejano is no stranger to catering to his guests, having worked at Cafe Japengo and Black and Blue at the Valley View Casino before being recruited by owner Keoni Barcarsu to head up Jade. Don’t be surprised if you see him strolling through the dining room on any given evening—he’s created a playful menu for a playful setting, and he wants to see guests enjoy both.
The ultimate Montejano experience, however, is only available to the select few. The "Mercy of the Chef," available for up to ten guests at a time, is a multi-course experience where guests are given no menus, do no ordering, and sit back in a private room while they watch the chef in action, thanks to a live video stream from the kitchen to a flat-screen tv mounted tableside.
While we don't partake in the exclusive experience this time, we still feel like we are in good hands. A platter holding four items from the Tease menu arrives: Seared Albacore, Yellowfin Tataki Sashimi, Tako Sashimi, and North Sea Duck. Yellowfin Tataki Sashimi is the most traditional on the platter, with three sashimi slices dominoed in a pool of thick, sweet sake vinaigrette. Each bite pays homage to the Japanese aesthetic of unadorned quality.
Seared Albacore is a visual feast, three thick slivers of albacore sashimi sitting in a pool of pale apple mustard aioli, topped with lime-green wasabi tobiko caviar. The pale fish's edges are seared a dark shade of pink, the gentle sear adding a hint of roughness to the otherwise pure bite. The dressing is tart and refreshing, coarsely diced apple pieces mingling with mustard cream.
North Sea Duck is a playful addition to this makeshift sashimi platter, as the sashimi-like presentation mimics that of its water-born counterparts. Thin strips of medium rare duck lay gracefully atop a medley of five-spiced long beans and sliced shitake mushrooms, in a pool of rich glaze. The meat is just as tender as its sushi predecessors, but the flavor brings us from the sea to the farm.
The Tako Sashimi is the most daring of the “Teases,” featuring thick rounds of octopus layered between verdant slices of jalapeño, resting in a pool of Korean sesame oil. The chewy flesh of the sea creature is a perfect canvas for the feisty flavors of sesame and jalapeño, its soft texture prolonging the flavors on the palate.
After making the rounds of the Tease menu, it seems impossible not to move on to the Tastes. The exotic array of appetizers is a culinary tour of East Asia, with stops in Thailand, Japan, India, Korea, and China. The tempting sustenance at each stop ranges from traditional to modern; comforting street food to divine elegance. Mindful of Montejano's warning that "some people never make it past the tasting menu," we sample just one small plate.
There is not a hint of remorse in our selection. A long white plate arrives carrying a bulbous green bowl of tempura-battered Spicy Calimari. Three accompaniments are ready to tantalize the tastebuds: a peach chili relish, sweet chili sauce, and tobiko aioli. I can't help but smile at the luxury of adding caviar to aioli, but it is the peach chili relish that wins me over—it's the perfect ratio of sweet and spicy. The calamari themselves are decadent—breaded in tempura batter and drizzled with a spicy soy sauce, each ring is so lush, so tender, that I can't believe they are calamari.
The Eat portion of the menu is just as teasing as the Tastes, with temptations that try our decision-making skills. We settle on Seared Hokkaido Scallops first. A long white plate arrives studded with a trio of cylindrical sculptures, framed by an artful array of sauces. Three dense potato cakes—spiced with Japanese furikake and deep fried—are topped with U-15 George Banks scallops, sake-braised shredded leeks, and jet-black caviar. While the components are clearly distinct, this dish is best when they combine, the tender scallop and the potato cake sharing a lush, creamy texture. The pale lemongrass sauce, deep port wine ginger reduction, and bright red balls of salmon roe that dance around the plate serve to lift the delicate ingredients from fresh and unadorned to sweet succulence.
Having a weakness for wit, I can't resist the dish dubbed "What the Pho?" Especially when, witty names aside, Montejano's version of this traditional beef noodle soup features a rare treat—Waygu Kobe beef. A steaming bowl of crystal clear beef broth arrives in steaming fashion, holding a generous amount of rice noodles, herbs, and carpaccio-thin slivers of rare beef. We're instructed to stir in the accompanying garnishes—Thai basil, bean shoots, fresh lime juice, and jalapeños—to our liking, watching how the pink, rare meat quickly cooks in the steaming broth. This is pure, simple, satisfaction. The steam rises with each spoonful, the tender noodles, lean meat, and fresh herbs eagerly embracing the flavorful broth. Like tea leaves in steaming water, the beef and herbs infuse the broth, making it stronger as the dish lingers. The last few spoonfuls are the most decadent, the rich broth exploding with savory flavor.
Regardless of how you order, do save room for the “Treat” menu. The Asian-inspired selections are some of the most creative dishes on the menu. Banana fritters are playful and fun, thick slices of banana coated in a panko-coconut mixture and deep fried, then served with caramel and coconut sauces. Chai Cake is a clear favorite—moist and alluring, topped with fresh chive cream and Asian pears poached in plum wine. Honey Cream Cheese Lumpias are an exotic twist on the normally-staid cheesecake, with crisp wonton wrappers piped with a honey cream cheese filling, deep fried and served with a marmelade-like orange-sesame sauce whose bright, tart flavors awaken the palate. Chocolate Five Spice Indulgence is the most decadent of the selections, a dense chocolate cake brought from the traditional to the exotic with the use of five-spice powder, a traditional Chinese spice blend that offers all five basic tastes—sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and savory. The cake is topped with a final treat—sake marinated cherries topped with edible gilt leaves.
The night wouldn't be over without a little wickedness, and we accompany our Five Spice Indulgence with a Five-Spice Martini. Designed to mimic the cake but in liquid form, this is an adult's pleasure, heavy cocoa flavored with exotic spices and a hint of liqueur. As I sip slowly, I can't help but savor my surroundings and the meal we've just experienced. The Jade Theater is entertainment, but rather than employ actors and plot lines, this theater showcases the sensual: tastes, aromas, textures, visual delights. As the curtain drops and we step out into the night air, I think about the show's message: there are undeniable pleasures in this world, which deserve to not only be enjoyed, but to be savored.
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