The Boston Phoenix
May 11 - 18, 2000

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Jasmine Bistro

Stumbling onto a haute hide-out

by Stephen Heuser

DINING OUT
Jasmine Bistro
412 Market Street, Brighton
(617) 789-4676
Open Tues-Sun, 5-11 p.m.
AE, MC, Visa
Beer and wine
No smoking
Sidewalk-level access
Once upon a time the best restaurants in every city served more or less the same menu of rich, creamy, standardized French food. Today the old order has passed, and top restaurants seem to take pride in their willingness to introduce tobiko or king oyster mushrooms into just about anything. Traditional fancy food -- the hotel-style, Châteaubriand-with-sauce-béarnaise kind of cooking -- survives only in a few recalcitrant pockets, such as this unlikely spot in Brighton Center.

Jasmine Bistro is a two-window storefront with a blue-green awning and no more than 30 seats inside -- not, certainly, the kind of place you expect to find someone who has cooked at Maxim's. But it's true, the owner did work at Maxim's; Naz Khan is an Afghan-born chef whose culinary training occurred in Budapest and Paris, and who also worked locally at that grand dowager of a dining room, the Café Budapest. This may explain (if anything can) why the menu is evenly divided between French and Hungarian dishes.

It does not really explain the décor, a homey mishmash of decades, styles, and textures. Hunting prints hang next to geometric glass light fixtures; the plaster walls look like meringue. There is a giant tropical fish tank. But the most memorable thing -- and the touch that ties it all together -- is the fabric of the tablecloths: every table is covered with a fascinating, deep-red fabric woven with gold thread and bits of mirror. The fabric is handmade in Baluchistan as a covering for Afghani feast cushions; here in Brighton, the effect is like eating dinner on a Klimt painting.

The Hungarian-French combination on the menu was a new one on me. But Hungarian food, which I had always thought of as spicy peasant stews (goulash, the national dish, reputedly originated as a shepherd's dinner stored in a sheep stomach), turns out to be surprisingly amenable to the cream-sauce-and-mushroom treatment, and sits easily cheek-by-jowl with old-style French classics.

There is also a menu of Middle Eastern and "Near Eastern" (read: Persian and Afghan) dishes cooked by Jasmine Khan, wife of the owner. And beyond that, some flights of fancy. For instance: a special of chilled papaya-mint soup ($6), an orange-colored purée in which the tropical flavor of papaya was set against the light herbal taste of mint, all zipped up with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of Sauternes.

Another dish I'd never seen before was the hearts of palm salad ($5.50) -- at least not done this way. Hearts of palm are usually sliced into short lengths and tossed into something; here they were left several inches long, stacked in a little pyramid on mesclun leaves, and served in a buttermilk dressing. This being a restaurant with classical roots, there's also an appetizer of escargot ($8.25) -- 10 fat snail meats, not in the shell, served on a stainless plate in hot buttery oil, with crisped bits of garlic.

The whole point of most nouveau cuisines is that if you use really good ingredients, you don't need sauce -- at least not sauce in the grand hotel style. But what happens if you use really good ingredients and sauce? This seems to be the idea at Jasmine, where a classic Hungarian dish like chicken paprikás (pronounced "paprikash," $13) is made with chunks of startlingly high-quality white chicken breast, firm and juicy. They sit on angel-hair pasta with a rich, buttery paprika sauce. I don't cook with paprika -- I've always found the taste harsh -- but this sauce seemed different. The reason, it turns out, is that the sauce uses multiple paprikas, both mild and spicy, as well as a homemade curry powder.

I noticed the same buttery-rich qualities in the beef gulyás, or goulash ($14.50), which was not, as I'd expected, a bowl of peppery stew. It was chunks of medium-rare steak served with quartered new potatoes in a lovely rich sauce. The beef was fillet. (All the beef here is fillet. If Jasmine Bistro offered a hamburger, it would be ground fillet.) It was delicious, as was beef stroganoff (fillet again, $18.95). Stroganoff has gained a terrible reputation in the cafeterias of this great land, so I was kind of expecting thick goo served over egg noodles. Instead, this was medium-rare meat in a velvety light cream sauce incorporating at least three different kinds of mushroom (including, I believe, the king oyster). "Tournedos à la gourmet" ($22.50), with that wonderful cruise-ship name, was a nice piece of beef with a shiitake-mushroom sauce and one big shrimp laid on top. Both the stroganoff and the tournedos came with an aromatic rice pilaf stacked into a little tetrahedron.

The house wines rotate, and the service is great: our waiter swirled a glass of chardonnay madly to release the aromas before giving it to us for a taste. The wine list is arranged like a face book -- each wine gets its own page, with a label and a description. (I like this; it makes wine-ordering more like shopping and less like reading an inventory printout.) At any rate, we had a bottle of Guenoc petite syrah, a deep and muscular red, for $30. I called around afterward and couldn't find a store that sold it for less than $21 -- which, if you know anything about restaurant wine pricing, makes this practically a gift. The wine could have been served a few degrees cooler (it was stored near the heat of the kitchen), but honestly it was such a good deal that I didn't have the heart to be fussy.

Desserts were competent and basic. A slice of bread pudding ($5.50) had elaborate ribbons of caramel across the top; basic apple strudel ($5.50) came in a flaky puff pastry. The dessert with the most flair was two plump strawberries enrobed in excellent dark Belgian chocolate ($2).

Jasmine feels like a place out of time. The food is good but not showy; the waiters know every dish inside and out. They're also Naz Khan's sons. They've been there for all seven years that Jasmine Bistro has existed, and the tropical fish, which have also been there seven years, will follow Ray Khan's hand as he flutters it from across the room. And you watch, amazed that fish can be trained, and amazed that a restaurant can stay open serving stroganoff for seven years in the most ridiculously schizophrenic period of our gastronomic life.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@phx.com.


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