Restaurant News & Reviews

Jasmine Rice serves a masterful mix of three cuisines

Green Papaya Salad at Jasmine Rice restaurant  on Friday January  14, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Green Papaya Salad at Jasmine Rice restaurant on Friday January 14, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Amidst the hodgepodge of specialty shops and euphemistic "clubs" on Winchester Road and the controversial mural of Big Ass Fans (which I like, in spite of myself), good food occasionally sneaks in. There has been a decent taqueria, and fortunately, beloved Spalding's doughnuts and Charlie's mighty fish sandwich endure. But most places come and go, quickly forgotten.

I'll bet that fate does not befall Jasmine Rice, which is in the former Fusion restaurant at Winchester and Seventh Street. The menu offers Thai and Vietnamese dishes, and on weekends, Lexington's first encounter with Laotian cuisine. Although beverages are hurriedly offered even before you can sit down, and the interior of oilcloth tabletops and naked walls is dull, the flavors are exactly the opposite and in inverse ratio, with seasonings present but restrained, like perfect culinary perfume, and "spicy" always means "hot."

One might approach a meal here by sampling several appetizers.

Try the scrumptious skewered barbecued pork. Its marinade will provoke speculation on possible ancestral connections between Laos and the American South. Larb — stir-fried ground chicken with scallions and onions — has just a whisper of fish sauce. Julienne of cucumbers and carrots, and bright cilantro, make it incredibly savory and wonderfully fresh. Wrap it in lettuce, or nibble it with sticky rice. The Vietnamese egg rolls, Asia's ultimate finger food, are wonderful. Although they're healthiest with vegetables, noodles and tofu bundled in moistened rice paper, the deep-fried version, with minced pork, mushrooms, onions and carrots, is probably more satisfying in winter.

Or make a salad your meal.

It's great to see green papaya salad, with fresh shrimp and chopped peanuts, on a menu. The shredded fruit is a textural cross between vermicelli and bean sprouts. Withered, dried shrimp add crunch and a concentrated briny hit. More substantial is the spicy Thai beef salad, with paper-thin slices of meat, a spritz of aromatic lime juice and green onions, lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. It's tossed in the house dressing, a fine simple oil that has, again, a mere hint of fish sauce. The chopped cilantro and Thai basil add a fresh herbal layer.

Jasmine Rice's hand with soups is equally deft.

Downtowners now have their very own pho shop, and Jasmine Rice makes a great rendition of this classic noodle soup. Let the broth's mild scent of cloves transport you to the Spice Islands. Order it with tripe if you want, but I like mine with tender brisket and meatballs that melt in your mouth. Plunk in jalapeño rings, Thai basil, scallions, lime and bean sprouts at your discretion.

The citrusy base of the tom yum soup is tangy and fabulous, balancing the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in perfect proportions. The squid rings are butter-tender, as are the shrimp, and wedges of fresh tomatoes and quartered mushrooms create a complete lunch or dinner.

Jasmine Rice also makes the best pad see ew in town. Its wide, flat noodles are rich and soft rather than sticky or gummy, coated with a sweet sauce and held together with stir-fried eggs, perfectly cooked broccoli and a protein of your choice. Squirt a bit of lime on it for acid, and add bean sprouts for crunch.

Finally, every meal needs a curry, right? The kitchen's subtle touch makes the green curry a winner: The coconut milk base is light, as are the spicy herbaceous flavors, so neither overwhelms the generous helpings of diced carrots, baby corn and peas, and meat, seafood or tofu.

However dubious I might usually be about a clubhouse of cuisines under one roof, I guess I have to eat my words. Jasmine Rice makes it all work, and splendidly.

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