Fill Her Up

Jasoom's banana milkshake martini is awesome. If only the rest of the menu had such panache.

May 11, 2005 at 4:00 am
It took until the tail end of my second visit, but I finally found what I was looking for at Jasoom when the banana milkshake martini arrived. Normally I shun all martinis -- the real ones on flavor because I don't care for gin straight-up or vermouth in anything; the fake ones on principle because they are not real ones -- but we were fishing for a third dessert to order, and I couldn't convince those I was dining with that the "apple-cheese pie," stuffed with warmed ricotta and Cheddar, was a good idea, so we nabbed something from the drink list.

The banana milkshake martini really was a banana milkshake: thick, frothy and bursting with fresh fruit taste. It was also layered and cloudlike -- mille-feuille in a martini glass -- adrift with a whiff of cream here, a jab of alcohol there, all of it floating over a steady, pleasing banana undercurrent. It was a fully integrated cocktail, yet more than the sum of its ingredients. Each flavor that wafted up from it was instantly familiar, but it wasn't quite like anything I'd ever tippled on.

Small wonders like this were what I very much wanted to unearth at Jasoom. With its puckish moniker and postage stamp-size digs (there must be many, many west-county walk-in closets bigger than this dining room), I couldn't help but hope for something...airy and idiosyncratic? Homey and clever? Incense and peppermints? I wasn't entirely sure, and I don't think I'm the only one confused by what this two-month-old restaurant is supposed to be about: During that second, Friday-night dinner, I saw several pairs of South Grand passersby approach Jasoom's plate-glass storefront, glance over the menu posted there and keep walking. In the "About Jasoom" blurb that tops the bill of fare, the word "comfort" appears front and center in the first sentence. In an unexpected, onomatopoeic way, the sound of "Jasoom" does befit an itsy-bitsy bistro that takes what your mama once fed ya (or, in a couple cases, your madre or your mère) and throws a few self-conscious tweaks into the batter. And it's a complete relief to see a new establishment that has absolutely nothing to do with fusion or tapas. If only the restaurant achieved what its banana milkshake martini does in miniature -- something really special, something beyond the sum of its parts.

Space-wise, Jasoom hasn't got many parts to work with. Just a dozen tables occupy the room, and it's to the house's credit that the floor plan doesn't feel cramped. Canary-yellow walls, a pressed-tin ceiling and a nonfunctional tiled fireplace strive to provide visual charm, but these are canceled out to a large degree by the kitchen. With no wall, door or partition separating front of house from back, the kitchen isn't so much open-air as exposed. To see all that metal shelving and that big blue Pepsi fountain in the back is to be reminded of an institutional cafeteria.

Our first visit began with two of the menu's four starters -- fried dill pickles, a favorite of mine since I tried them at Tony Paco's in Toledo, and "boudin balls" -- plus a plate of French fries. Individually, these were upstanding dishes. Like most fried pickles, the breaded spears held the heat almost too well and could damn near cauterize your ear, nose and throat works if not sufficiently aired out before being eaten. An accompanying ramekin of tart remoulade doused the temperature a bit. Like Junior Mints in movie popcorn or eating a tomato as if it were an apple, heating a pickle is one of those things that sounds really, really wrong but is actually really, really good; a certain, salty savoriness gets enticed out of the briny cuke.

Next came the French fries. We were surprised to find they'd been tempura-fried -- making for odd shapes, like little pieces of found art -- and that they were served with the same remoulade on the side. Then came the boudin balls, chunks of Louisiana pork-and-rice sausage that had been... breaded and fried. With the same remoulade on the side. Admittedly, had we read the menu closely, we'd have altered course accordingly.

As it was, by the end of that first course -- all brown, all remoulade, fried on top of fried -- we were gnawing on the romaine leaves the boudin had been plated on, craving roughage and wishing we could cancel the entrées, take care of the check and go home to lie on the couch. The dishes were nifty, each in their own way, but not all at once, not even when you're sharing with two other people.

On the next visit we ordered the two remaining appetizers, chicken liver mousse and queso fundido (described on the menu as "chorizo, three cheeses and chiles melted into a dip for freshly fried tortillas"), and, with an eye toward lightening things up, a Jasoom house salad. The mousse was done right -- which is to say, it was heavy -- but didn't come with "crispy toast" as advertised. Instead we got thick slices of buttered baguette, which provided no textural contrast, just extra weight to a dish that didn't need any. Try as it might, the queso fundido didn't amount to much more than a nacho cheese dip, while the house salad, tossed with undersize corn kernels and crumbles of cheese, fell far short of showing off any signature style.

If the appetizers took comfort to the point of comatose, the dessert list failed to soothe or cheer -- a real letdown at a comfort-food restaurant. I can't recall the last time a dessert menu failed so universally to inspire. Unquestionably, chocolate and polenta are feel-good comfort foods. But mixed together into a fudge-dense chocolate polenta cake, the cornmeal's granular texture was distinctly unappealing. And while cream cheese on a bagel may be a happy way to begin your day, you're probably not seeking it out for dessert. Jasoom's raspberry-cream cheese crostata was reminiscent of an Entemann's danish: familiar but boring.

For the most part, Jasoom's main-course menu was a welcome break from the first- and final-course funks: meat loaf infused with sharp notes of tomato and brown sugar and the fatty goodness of bacon; pozole that combined pinto beans, hominy, chiles, rice and roasted pork into a singularly sensational flavor (but could have used more than just three tortillas on the side); fried chicken of the deepest mahogany tones. And the Kentucky Hot Brown was downright stunning: a bowlful of sliced roast turkey breast, bacon, garlic bread and tomato, flooded with gooey cheese and Mornay sauce. Think eggs Benedict's sinister twin. In fact, the only main-course misstep was the red curry, a spiced-up stew of chicken, potatoes and vegetables that was fine but nothing more.

Maybe when the weather turns cold I'll find myself craving the meat loaf or the pozole. Perhaps I'll even wish Jasoom was open for brunch -- I can see that Kentucky Hot Brown satisfying many a Sunday-morning craving. But it'll soon be summer, and staring down the barrel of Jasoom's menu in July seems a daunting prospect.