Jason Lee, proprietor of the now-shuttered East Meets West, is hoping the second time’s the charm. After he was forced to close his upscale restaurant, he moved to Celestin’s former Midtown digs and downscaled his menu to reflect the leaner economy. The new restaurant offers the same fusion of European and Asian cuisine that made the Howe Avenue restaurant a top dining attraction. The new venture, J. Lee’s Euro-Asia Bistro, serves a wide variety of salads and sandwiches in addition to dinner entrées.
The restaurant itself is stylish and serene and is outfitted in polished, dark wood and sand-hued walls. The bar area gets high marks for its ambience, with low, neutral-colored couches sparked with red armchairs in a modern vein.
As is befitting its name, J. Lee’s has an extensive list of wines available by the glass or bottle. J. Lee’s menu flirts with the concepts of fusion cuisine without straying too far into the raised-eyebrow category. Think fried, vegetable-filled wontons instead of fried ravioli; think meatballs hinting at lemongrass in a marinara sauce spiked with Korean chili-pepper sauce. We started with spring rolls ($5.95) stuffed with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, served with an apple sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. The three rolls came propped up by a mound of crisp, sautéed, julienned vegetables. The rolls themselves were plump with shrimp, a nice change from the usual pork and vegetable filling.
J. Lee’s offers some unusual variations on the standard lunch menu, too. Among its offerings were soba and grilled chicken, and Korean risotto salads ($5.95-$8.95). A teriyaki-chicken salad lifts itself above the pack, with a wasabi vinaigrette. The sandwich menu—all sandwiches are $6.95—offers seared king salmon and a shiitake-mushroom burger with Angus chuck and a Korean barbecue glaze. The restaurant also offers a vegetarian sandwich that shows more attention than usual: artichokes, roasted red bell peppers, zucchini and spinach along with asiago cheese and a sun-dried red-bell-pepper mayonnaise on rosemary foccacia bread.
Fans of Korean food would do well to order the bulgogi sandwich, which was accompanied by a small salad dressed in a sesame vinaigrette. Traditionally, this super-tender, barbecued beef is served with rice and hot, pickled kimchee. But this version worked perfectly as a sandwich. The melt-in-your-mouth shreds of beef were piled on grilled ciabatta bread, with romaine providing the crunch and a roasted-garlic mayonnaise adding richness. Although the caramelized onions and grilled red bell peppers topping the beef were tasty, they were cold, which jarred the palate. The Chinois sandwich, with a fried Chinese chicken breast on focaccia, integrated its elements a little more successfully.
Entrées run the gamut in complexity and price and include several pastas coming in at less than $10; a roasted salmon ($14.95); and a splurge-worthy dish of seared filet mignon and shrimp tempura, served with eggplant mashed potatoes ($24.95). Fans of fusion cuisine can opt for linguine with beef tenderloin in a black-bean-and-garlic sauce or try the spaghetti with meatballs in a spicy Asian marinara sauce ($9.95). The intriguingly spiced meatballs were competently prepared but not outstanding.
Although the menu at J. Lee’s is not exactly child-friendly, our waiter went out of his way to consult with the chef, who whipped up a plate: strips of chicken coated in a tempura batter and fried, served with a tepee-shaped mound of deliciously crispy matchstick potatoes. The impromptu meal was done so well that the kid actually licked his plate clean; perhaps this dish should be added to the menu.
J. Lee’s was offering two desserts on a recent rainy Sunday: a cheesecake and a pistachio torte. The cheesecake was quite good. It was not overly dense and was served in a pool of strawberry sauce that thankfully tasted more of fruit than of sugar. The pistachio torte proved to be a layer of cream cheese over a graham cracker crust, topped with a layer of pistachio cream and chopped pistachios. The cream was a lovely pastel green, but the flavor was so subtle as to be almost indiscernible. The kids made short work of it, though.
Lee is bargaining that his new Midtown location will prove to be a long-term success. Certainly, the restaurant should prove popular with the Midtown lunch crowd, with J. Lee’s winning formula of inventive, light fare served in a stylish setting.