If you’ve ever asked a true Beatles fan what he or she thinks about The Monkees, you may get a series of disparaging comments inundated by eye-rolling and perhaps a polite expletive or two. This is because even folks who aren’t big on music still know enough to determine that The Monkees were a prefabricated, Hollywood-hyped version of the Fab Four. Not to say that the Monkees didn’t have redeeming qualities--hell, I’ve hummed “Last Train to Clarksville” in the tub a few times. But when comparing “Daydream Believer” to “I Am the Walrus,” one will undoubtedly come up short.
This was how I felt eating lunch at Jinja Bar & Bistro. I went in hoping for Abbey Road and instead I got Headquarters.
The theme behind Jinja Bar & Bistro is definitely intriguing. They boast a ’30s- and ’40s-era Pacific Rim itinerary, with inspiration from Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. In theory, this kind of fusion is innovative for offering diners such a big bite out of the Orient. However, as I sat looking at the menu, I realized that meant an awful lot of different tastes and cooking styles to marry. And since there are so many variations from region to region, I wondered how practical their approach could really be.
The appetizers and entrées have generalized influences from each country the restaurant touts. Some tofu dishes and a miso soup stand in for Japan, chicken satay is popular in Singapore and Malaysia, spring rolls and shaking beef come from Vietnam, and pad Thai is from … duh. There are dishes like Hong Kong chicken and chow fun chili noodles with some decidedly Chinese names and ingredients. A few items on the menu are Asian by default, like crab cakes and rotisserie chicken with wasabi and teriyaki sauce added to make them conform. The menu draws the bulk of its weight from Western versions of the most generally well-known Asian dishes. In other words, there are no surprises, and the authenticity's spread pretty thin.
I ordered the Malay coconut soup ($3.75 cup or $5.75 bowl) for starters and got a pleasantly larger-than-expected portion. Unfortunately, it did not come with a spoon. I eventually flagged down my well-meaning but spacey server and received my utensil. Service here as a whole was tolerable but rather absent-minded. As I watched several employees wander around yakking on their cell phones, I was reminded that the place has only been open since September, and so they might not have a seasoned waitstaff yet.
My soup looked and smelled good and came with a side of fried wonton strips. But after a couple of bites I realized that much like the affected Asian TGI Friday’s-like surroundings, it was all show and no go. It was loaded with huge carrot slices and soggy udon noodles, and I found exactly one overcooked shrimp in the overkilled-with-lime broth. I was glad for the protection against a scurvy outbreak, but ready to hope the entrée I chose would be better. It wasn’t.
My jungle green curry ($10.50) had so many carrots in it, the orphaned four slivers of eggplant in my bowl seemed even smaller. The shrimp tally this time was eight (and they were 60/80s; an industry term that means it takes 60 to 80 shrimp to make up a pound, so they were relatively small), and the boatload of accompanying bell peppers and rice could have fed a small village. But the real kicker was that the green curry sauce had no discernible flavor of curry at all. In fact, it tasted remarkably like my soup.
Meh. I asked for a dessert menu, but I just didn't have the heart to bother. Piña colada cheesecake sounded a little too fern bar retro-trendy and I was ready to cut my losses and split.
Since knowing is half the battle, Jinja Bar & Bistro is to Asian cuisine what Chili’s is to Mexican food—a lesser version of the real thing. If you want to go out on a weekend night and toss back cocktails with little umbrellas in them and feel cosmopolitan because there's grilled pineapple in your rice, then this is your lucky restaurant. If you want a really good meal of Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese food, then go somewhere else. Yes, The Monkees had plenty of albums with songs that charted. But they will never, ever be The Beatles.
The Alibi Recommends
Jinja Bar & Bistro, 8900 Holly NE, Ste. B, 856-1413. Hours: Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m-midnight. Price range: moderate. No smoking, credit cards accepted, lots of booze.