My friend texted me after making a reservation at J. Wong's Asian Bistro, one of the new restaurants that have recently opened in downtown Salt Lake City.
"They have Peking duck on the menu but it requires 24-hour notice. Should I order it?" Even though it was in the tone-neutral confines of a SMS message, I could tell he was excited at the prospect of a platterful of bronzed, roasted duck.
"Of course," I texted back. "We should definitely try it." After that, I had 24 hours to kill before I could sink my teeth into J. Wong's version of this Chinese restaurant classic ($40 for four people). The lengthy pre-order process allows cooking time and, by the look of the platter that was presented to us, also time for someone with crazy good knife skills to compose a mosaic of sliced cucumber, green onions and maraschino cherries.
The edible gilding is striking, as was J. Wong's dining room, as the dimly lit space cocooned us from the construction on 200 South. The high-backed booths, eye-catching bar and light fixtures create a space that is distinctly Asian in inspiration, but modern in philosophy. The waif-like blonde hostess, dressed in a variation of the Chinese qi pao, cut in a classic black, led us to our table.
Yet the food is incredibly predictable, including sesame and sweet and sour chickens ($11, $10), and the formidable General Tao (or Tso) ($11). Unlike the stunning dining room, the food is sadly innocuous in its approach. The menu doesn't inspire as much as it makes fans of American Chinese restaurant fare comfortable, appealing to those who prefer the usual breaded and sauced dishes or stir-fried suspects.
In some cases there are outstanding examples of these. Beef snap peas ($12) combine tender strips of meat, crunchy sweet pods and a judicious slick of garlic-infused sauce. It's seasoned with just the right amount of soy to bring out the sweetness of the seasonal pea.
Platters of "summer" rolls (fresh spring rolls, essentially, $5.50) and ginger-infused pot stickers ($6) arrive on pristine, sleekly outlined plates and platters, and the glassware and stemware echo the understated, modern vibe. The thoughtful details stand out, but the effect is somehow incongruous. With such luxurious, world-class style, you would expect a different interpretation of dishes that so many find appealing.
The kitchen shouldn't have trouble with the tenderness of a special salt-baked calamari ($14) or the temperature of a succulent but overly sweet walnut shrimp ($15). Though abundant, the calamari was tough. And though wildly popular, the cold walnut shrimp are little more than gloppy sweet shrimp. On the occasion that the dish arrived hot, it was simultaneously crunchy, creamy, sweet and hot; I could see the addictive possibilities of the dish when properly executed.
The gorgeous Peking duck ($40) was delicious, arriving in two courses. The first entailed slices of the bronzed skin (which could have been crispier during one visit) that you eat with J. Wong's extremely buttery Chinese pancakes and dress with an intense plum sauce and the intricate garnishes. The second course is a celebratory looking stir-fry of roasted duck slices and peppers and onions that, unfortunately, arrived cold.
What may be unexpected is the Thai influence on the menu. The restaurant is named, appropriately, an "Asian" bistro and is the product of the Wong family's contemporary history in both China and Thailand. Another stir-fry did the Thai homage justice, the dish composed of thick slices of silky eggplant, tender fragrant Thai basil, bell peppers, mushrooms and chili garlic sauce ($9).
More often than not, you'll likely see Jordan Wong, one of the three "Js" -- all brothers -- of J. Wong's, manning the front of the house with a serious look of professionalism on his young-looking face. His style is smooth, doting without being overbearing, and as composed as the kitchen's intricate garnishes. A few servers follow his example with an easy-going but professional demeanor. Others lack his timing and style and can make the meal a bit jarring, particularly when you happen to linger toward the end of the operating hours.
Still, like any formidably large Chinese menu, there are pleasures to be found in various combinations. It's just a matter of finding your own style in this rich setting.
Bottom line » When it comes to garnishing platters of Peking duck (a must-try) or the dining room, this downtown eatery offers beautiful settings for familiar, if innocuous, Chinese dishes.
Location » 163 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City; 801-350-0888
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Children's menu » Yes
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full bar
Corkage » $10
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » Valet
Credit cards » All major