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JP Seafood Café730 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain; 983-5177
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.;
Sat, noon to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 3 to 10 p.m.
MC, VI; Sidewalk-level access; No liquor.
by Robert Nadeau
"Well, well" says Einstein. "Let me ask you something. How come a neighborhood Thai or Chinese restaurant is never as good as the downtown places, but a neighborhood Korean or Japanese restaurant is?"
No, Dr. Einstein, I don't know why that happens either. The latest example is JP Seafood Café, the project of the second generation of a Korean-American family that started by purchasing a fish store a few blocks down Centre Street. Take-out dinners, including little sushi assortments, became so important in that business that the restaurant became a logical next step. So now the family has an instantly successful restaurant with a fish store next door, in larger quarters.
The Korean-Japanese thing is handled by assigning the dishes to two different chefs. The Japanese chef who takes care of the sushi is a fine talent, and the Korean chef turns out some highly competitive platters.
We began with gyoza ($4.95) and shumai ($5.95). The former are the Korean version of Peking ravioli, with finer pasta and beef-vegetable or vegetable (cabbage-ginger is the flavor) fillings instead of pork. The latter are the Japanese improvements on a classic Cantonese, shrimp-flavored dim sum, being miniaturized to bay-scallop size and fried. Both are wowsers, as is the scallion pancake ($7.95), a thinner, larger, eggier, less greasy version of the Mandarin scallion pancake.
Just to tour the sushi, we had a nigiri sushi deluxe ($18.95). Our platter had several quality touches, starting with the decision to stick entirely to finger-shaped nigiri sushi, except for one turret of flying-fish roe. An unusual white-colored roe in a thin slice was new to me, as was the careful extra slicing on a surf clam. The chef used both sweet raw tiny shrimp and a cooked prawn, broiled eel, and raw salmon. My only quibbles with this platter were the large amount of wasabi (horseradish-flavored green mustard) spread on most pieces (a decision that should be left to the diners, with the mound of wasabi on the wooden platter), and the lack of the most expensive grade of dark tuna -- which, in fairness, has been disappearing from sushi assortments all over Boston.
Since the nigiri plate had no rolled sushi, we had a half-dozen California maki ($4.50) to see how the chef did with those popular avocado-crab rolls. And we were glad we did, as the tricky reverse roll, with the rice and sesame seeds and a few flying-fish eggs on the outside, looked great and tasted freshly made.
On the Korean side of things, I was extremely impressed with the bibimbop ($9.95), a traditional medley of beef and vegetables, everything in distinct piles, topped with a fried egg and flavored with a hot sauce based on sweet-bean paste. At the JP Seafood Café, the bibimbop is laid out with great attention to detail: the stir-fried beef in the center, surrounded by carrots, zucchini, spinach in sesame sauce, daikon radish, dried mushrooms, and such. The rice is in a bowl on the side, the hot sauce in another.
Japchae ($9.95) are cellophane noodles with a mixture of vegetables: snap peas, carrots, Chinese cabbage, red and green bell peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms -- all carefully underdone as for stir-fry. The "seafood stirfry" ($11.95), a house specialty, is much the same with scallops, clams, shrimp, phony crab, and (unadvertised) squid -- all fish-store fresh -- in a mild, generically Asian sauce. This kind of thing made Jae's famous.
A grilled red snapper ($10.95) was a fresh whole fish, but a lot of it dried out in the cooking process. It was interestingly garnished not only with rice but with a careful assortment of traditional Japanese pickles -- sweet yellow turnip pickles (takuan), surprisingly bright-green cucumber, purple onion, and tiny carrots. The teriyaki chicken ($11.95) was many boneless nuggets of breast meat, juicy and tender, coated with soy glaze and sesame seeds. The garnish was a couple of cubes of broiled tofu (very effective here), broccoli florets, carrots, and mushrooms.
Seafood tempura ($12.95) is another way to take advantage of the freshness of the seafood while still getting a more vegetables on one platter than a non-Asian seafood house ever serves. The tempura was exceptionally well fried, not browned (tempura frying is done at lower temperatures than Western deep-fat frying), yet crispy and free of residual grease. There is also a shrimp tempura ($12.95), and my recommendation for maximum flavor: the fish tempura ($10.95) made with white-fleshed fish in season.
JP Seafood Café has yet to come up with desserts, but this is no hardship a block from Jamaica Plain's own outlet of JP Licks, arguably the best ice-cream store in the hub of ice cream. Service at the café began quite well, despite crowds from early dinner well into the evening. The young managers are pleased with their acceptance and success in what is still a neighborhood underserved by restaurants of quality. And cheap doesn't hurt either.
I recently previewed Mushroom, a documentary film by Angelica Allende Brisk and Rachel Libert. Although it touches on the culinary as well as the mystical, biological, and psychedelic aspects of mushrooms, it is the mushroom people who bring the film to life. I was once a member of the Boston Mycological Club, and in the sequences with officers of a couple West Coast mushroom clubs, I recognized all the types we had in the Boston club 20 years ago: the artist, the well-bred naturalist, the adventurer sampling mushrooms of unknown edibility. The only old friend who hasn't been reincarnated in this film was the Yankee lady I remember once saying, in reference to our despised rivals, the bird-watchers, "Well. No one ever risked being poisoned watching a bird." When Mushroom plays on some odd half-hour of public television, don't miss it.
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