Soup is good food

Dinner for one: $10 - $20

This is my second consecutive review of a Chinese restaurant in Davis. If any of you have noticed, and/or care, I offer my apologies. I’ll branch out next time, but recently I’ve become unaccountably intrigued by Davis’ overweening Chinese restaurant population.

Davis is expanding, and it seems that each new commercial development necessarily contains yet another Chinese restaurant; there’s something almost botanical in the way they seem to spring up wherever there’s space. What intrigues me is how they survive: How many people does it take to support so many virtually identical restaurants?

And are they so similar? Perhaps by visiting a variety of them, I can find significant differences.

A few weeks ago, I claimed that there were 11 Chinese restaurants in Davis. Days later I found two more and one of them, Jade Garden, was pretty much brand new. So what does this new Chinese restaurant have to offer?

Having just eaten there, I give my conclusion—soup. We ordered a fair sampling of dishes from Jade Garden’s menu, but it was the soup that ruled, the soup that we will remember. We had two kinds: hot and sour, and sizzling rice. Both were stirring in their evocation of soup perfection. The sizzling rice soup ($4.75) differed significantly from the version of this dish I’d tried elsewhere. Rather than a straight-up chicken broth, it was imbued with a subtle tinge of sesame oil, which greatly enhanced its flavor. The shards of tender cabbage, chicken and crispy rice bits languished in our bowls, soothing us and making us feel warm and comfortable on the cold, stormy night we visited.

As for hot and sour soup, I love it and order it pretty much every time I go out for Chinese food. Jade Garden’s version ($3.75) is the best I can remember eating—excelling in terms of flavor, texture and value. Not overly gelatinous, the savory broth was thickened judiciously and heavily spiced. The best part was the sheer volume of goodies suspended in the broth: julienned bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, pork, peas and tofu dominated the available bowl space, and we all agreed we could have made dinner out of these two soups.

But we didn’t, because we had about 40 other dishes coming. Unfortunately, the superlative standard that had been established by the soups was not upheld by the rest of the meal. Nevertheless, the remaining items ranged from decent to very good.

I’m not a big follower of catfish, but my wife likes to eat pretty much any kind of water-dwelling life form, so we ordered the steamed catfish with black bean sauce ($11.50). Again, I can’t speak to much purpose about the catfish, because it tasted like catfish to me, but it seemed fresh enough and handily prepared. Fermented black beans, scallions and soy complemented the light, brothy sauce. The presentation, though, was superb: Instead of just throwing the thing whole onto a platter, the fish had been cross-sectioned into about 10 little steaks, which were arranged symmetrically around the plate.

Interesting, but not great, was the chicken egg fu yung ($5.95). I don’t order this stuff often, but it seemed odd, and sort of cool, that smothering the egg cakes was a mixture of chicken and veggies in a brown sauce that by itself could have constituted a dish. The stuff on top was great, the egg fu yung was not; there was something intangible but a bit weird about it.

As for the coconut curry chicken clay pot ($7.95) and the sizzling beef with scallops in black pepper sauce ($7.95), I vaguely remember eating them and thinking they were basically good, but unexceptional. I guess I was hoping they would be as good as the soups.

In the hierarchy of Chinese restaurants in Davis, Jade Garden fits into the middle spectrum. It’s satisfying—there’s no real reason to avoid it. But, unless you’re craving soup, there’s also not much reason to seek it out. In short, it’s your basic Chinese place.