Scent of a Wonton

Follow your nose to the sophisticated Northern Chinese fare at Jasmine

Betrothed relatives and dear friends, please take note: I will not review the food at your weddings. Not even in jest. I will give whatever hotelier, restaurant, or caterer you hire my highest accolades. I will praise your decision to serve chicken over pork and vigorously applaud whatever version of crab cake is being passed around on trays. When you are looking at me, I will take a bite of food and smile with apparent gustatory satisfaction.

But you can also be sure I'll be doing my research.

It's kind of the bane of a critic's existence -- you can never notwork. Even when I'm not officially on the job, my mind can't help but analyze every flavor and texture, whether I give voice to my findings or not. Menus are evaluated, recipes rated. And not necessarily from the venue where whatever event I'm attending is being held.

For example, I recently went to an outdoor wedding at Pete's Boca Raton on Glades Road, where I was mercilessly tormented -- not by long-winded vows or garishly dressed bridesmaids but by the aromas drifting over from Jasmine, the Chinese restaurant located next door in the plaza. What's everlasting love and respect when compared with the enticing fragrance of sesame oil and stir-fried garlic? It was all my husband could do to keep me focused on the bride and groom at Pete's, especially since the lakeside patios of the restaurants are connected by a disarmingly short stretch of sidewalk. Customers from Jasmine watched the ceremony as intently as I gazed at their plates.

As it turns out, my olfactory instincts were dead-on. Returning to Arvida Parkway Center without formal garb or gold-wrapped gift in hand, I found that Jasmine prepares sophisticated dishes that exhibit well-balanced flavors. Most notably, the menu includes a Peking duck that is always available (in some restaurants, you must order it ahead of time). While one member of my party was disappointed that the waiter didn't bring out the bird with its head on, as they do in New York City's Chinatown, we were all suitably impressed by the juicy meatiness of the poultry: nary a bite of blubber on the flesh. Nor did the crisp skin, wrapped tableside with scallions in pancakes and touched with hoisin sauce, contain any unnecessary fat.

Not only were honey-roasted ribs also free of extraneous gristle but they can be ordered with or without bones. I don't mind nibbling on bones, but I like the instant gratification of boneless ribs. And these candied specimens did indeed satisfy, allowing hearty bites of pork without requiring the diner to use a toothpick afterward.

True, the Northern Chinese menu may have been considered more exotic a decade ago. Some dishes like the dan dan noodle (egg noodles with minced, wok-fried chicken, garlic, and chili peppers) revealed roots of the style of Chinese cooking found in Boston, which is hardly surprising when one considers that Jasmine's sister restaurant is located in North Andover, Massachusetts. The sauce tasted less like the spicy mixture that I used to be addicted to when I lived in Boston than the Hah-vahd Yahd version of brown, pork-accented lobster sauce. A billed julienne of cucumber and scattering of bean sprouts were absent, along with any subsequent, alleviating crunch.

And of course, the array of Asian references is hardly a challenge in these more Eastern-enlightened times. Jasmine's subhead is "Taste of the Orient," and in addition to standard Peking provincial dishes like chow fun and lo mein, the eatery imports noodle dishes like seafood udon and shrimp pad Thai, which can be obtained easily at other ethnic eateries. What can't always be found so readily is one of my favorites, a fried-rice dish that remains white because soy sauce is withheld. The rice here contained wonderful textural contrasts, the chewy kernels dotted with peas, baby shrimp, diced ham, and scrambled eggs.

Nor is "hot 'n' spicy" really any more than flavorful: Our yu-hsiang lamb was barely piquant. Regardless of the heat factor, though, the brown garlic sauce was delicious, and the lamb, sliced but not shredded as the menu stated, was equal in quality to the duck and pork. In Chinese cooking, the cutting of meat is often just as important as the quick searing of it, and the kitchen at Jasmine has a skilled butcher behind the scenes.

If you are looking for something a bit unusual, consider the specials of the day, posted on a blackboard near the front door. We gleaned two superb dishes from this list: chicken with apples and prawn with lychee. Both were delicious, with tender main ingredients and succulent flavors of their respective fruits, but the latter was simply outstanding. Large, supple shrimp had been stir-fried with snow peas, carrots, and whole, pitted lychee nuts. Although experts have been saying that, like mangoes, lychee and avocado trees are having an unfulfilling season, you could never tell by these perfumed nuggets, which offered hints of strawberry and pineapple flavors. You can also settle on an appetizer of chicken-lettuce wraps. Although this dish has gone mainstream via units like the Cheesecake Factory, the minced chicken and vegetable filling is not only savory but a touch unusual, accented with pignola nuts instead of more familiar cashews.

Just don't decide to buck tradition by going for a slice of chocolate mousse cake instead of tempura-fried apples for dessert. Our piece was so spoiled, at first we thought someone had added salt instead of sugar by mistake. Then the curdled flavor set in, and the waiter, going only by our expressions of honest disgust, didn't even question us and took it off the check. A whole, steamed yellowtail snapper was also distinctly fishy, definitely subpar when compared with the excellence of the other dishes.

Granted, had I gotten a whiff of the fish while I was listening to the exchange of vows, I might not have been so eager to try Jasmine. I can only consider the aromas that I did smell a good omen and the resulting experience a sound fulfillment of that promise. Which also bodes well, I hope, for the newly married couple.

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