“What’s that smell?”
The air around my table has just turned sour. An acrid, pungent, invisible cloud sneaks up behind us and overtakes the entire dining room.
“What’s that smell?” I wonder again, whispering.
Just as I scrunch my nose, the head waiter walks by and hears my question, which I thought I had whispered so softly that only my dining companions could hear.
“That smell?” he asks, leaning into the table, beaming with pride. “Can you smell that?”
“Yes,” I say, startled. “What is it?”
“That’s the durian. We’re making durian mochi,” he tells me. “Would you like to try it?”
“Oh,” I say, recalling instances when I’ve eaten the notorious fruit in Asia. “No thanks.”
The front doors are now propped open, and a breeze pushes the stink along. Soon the smell is either no longer noticeable or else I’ve gotten used to it. Like the ultra-bright lights that cause me to squint when I first walked in. They’re almost blinding, like interrogation lamps, if only interrogation lamps came in the form of red crystal chandeliers. Lots of them. Everywhere. Glittering brilliantly.
J Zhou Oriental Cuisine, Tustin (photos by Brad A Johnson)
J Zhou Oriental Cuisine activates all the senses. This flashy, over-the-top Chinese restaurant opened in June at The District in Tustin, and it makes me wonder if Liberace is still alive and secretly living as a Chinese interior designer. Two walls are covered with enormous, dazzling reverse-glass paintings that must have cost a fortune.
The lunchtime menu focuses on dim sum. They give you a worksheet and a pencil. They also provide a laminated menu filled with color photographs for cross-reference. All the usual stuff is here: shrimp siu mai, barbecue pork bao, chicken feet, sticky rice in lotus leaves… The kitchen really excels at stir-fried rice noodles, like the one that’s paired with crisp green beans. And the spicy shrimp dumplings are truly wonderful, topped with enough fried garlic to cause your breath to emit a vapor trail for days.
At dinnertime, the menu shifts into ultra-luxe banquet mode. Several pages of the menu advertise elaborate dishes that must be ordered several days in advance and are meant to serve an extended family, like the whole barbecued pig or whole black chickens, as well as luxury items like sea cucumber with duck web or the double-dragon abolone, the latter of which requires at least a week’s notice to procure. After that are several pages of the more familiar dishes like sweet-and-sour pork and chow fun.
They’re sold out of the soy sauce chicken that I had hoped to order, so I opt instead for the whole deep-fried squab, which turns out to be just a naked bird on a plate with no sauce. It’s not particularly noteworthy. I also order the cumin lamb with Szechuan chilies because I like the picture on the menu, which shows a dish studded with hot red peppers. But when it arrives, all I see is a heap of brown, not a single chili in sight.“This doesn’t look right,” I say to the server. I open the menu and point to the photo. She whisks it away and returns moments later with another version, this once laced with charred red peppers. It’s good, I guess. The lamb is extraordinarily full-flavored, though, like mutton.
I’m still contemplating whether I might return for the whole pig. It serves at least 10 people, I’m told. But truth be told, I’m more inclined to come back for the dim sum lunch than for dinner.
J Zhou Oriental Cuisine
When: Lunch and dinner daily
Where: 2437 Park Avenue, Tustin
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.