Wok and Woe

Jimmi Yin's idea is sweet, but the execution is sour

Jimmi Yin's Asian Grill & Wok Bar

9739 Manchester Road, Rock Hill

Cool lettuce wraps $5.50
Hoisin grilled chicken salad $6.95
Jimmi's sweet and spicy chicken $7.95
Banana wontons $3.50

314-961-0006. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

You're not going to find the 60,000 BTU Vulcan convection oven in many restaurant kitchens. A baking and roasting marvel with a kick-ass cyclical air-circulating system, it relegates a top-of-the-line home unit like the Viking on par with an Easy-Bake Oven. In the hands of a pro, the Vulcan can turn out beautiful breads and cakes and roast a rack of lamb to lusty perfection. Maybe 30 percent of St. Louis restaurants can brag a Vulcan, virtually all of them upper-crust eateries turning out big-ticket food.

Six-month-old Jimmi Yin's Asian Grill & Wok Bar in Rock Hill has one -- a brand-new one at that (retail price: about $5,000), even though restaurants often buy used -- along with an awesome ventilation hood. The entire open kitchen and caboodle is on display from the moment you walk in, complete with three or four cooks milling about in matching black chef's jackets and hats. Coming face to face with all that gleaming equipment -- and knowing it's the retirement endeavor of a man who for years ran his own local delivery company -- is enough to bring tears to a gourmet's eyes.

Unfortunately, the food might make you cry too.

Jimmi Yin's aims to deliver Asian dishes in a fast-casual atmosphere, sort of like SanSai's approach to quick, fresh and simple sushi in neighboring Webster Groves. Elemental in ingredients and preparation, Asian food can be hard to mess up, but also easy to bastardize. Like lettuce wraps -- a glazed amalgam of flash-cooked diced chicken, mushrooms, water chestnuts, green onions and slightly stale rice noodles, spooned onto leaves of iceberg lettuce -- which have become popular at chain outposts P.F. Chang's and Stir Crazy. On Jimmi Yin's and P.F. Chang's menus, they're prefaced by the adjective "cool"; Stir Crazy more fittingly calls them "crazy." I think they're "stupid." Iceberg lettuce really isn't Asian produce, and playing soft taco with a lettuce leaf really isn't fun. Iceberg is veiny; it tends to break when bent. I don't like soy sauce on my clothes.

And I don't like any of Jimmi Yin's sauces in my mouth. Whether it's the smoky hoisin dressing mixed into the hoisin-grilled chicken salad, the Singapore chili sauce submersing an entrée portion of button-size scallops or the Thai coconut sauce drenching curried shrimp, it all comes off the same -- generic, blunt-tasting, hot, candied, gel-like glaze, like soy sauce mixed with Italian dressing.

Italian dressing alone may as well have been employed on that hoisin chicken salad. Tossed with shredded red cabbage, cashews and bits of mandarin orange, it was certainly decent in a McDonald's premium salad sort of way -- and just about as Asian. Pitching a handful of fruit and nuts on a bed of greens does not make it an Asian salad, even if you throw in Mandarin oranges (which are, in this country anyway, tangerines). By the same token, naming your restaurant Jimmi Yin's doesn't make it an Asian restaurant, especially when your name isn't Jimmi Yin.

Noodles, of course, are an authentic Asian ingredient. But Jimmi Yin's are too sticky -- not unlike the consistency of gummy-worms. On the other hand, black rice (another bona fide Asian mainstay) ought to be sticky enough to use as brick mortar. Here it was loose, though it did deliver an enjoyable, aromatic shot of anise (a staple Southeast Asian spice). Any trace of jasmine in the jasmine rice, however, was downright undetectable, and with my eyes either closed or open, I swore the pineapple and coconut rice was, in fact, cinnamon oatmeal.

A playful-sounding Asian chicken-and-dumplings soup (seemingly the menu's sole attempt at fusion fare) featured a healthy measure of chopped cilantro, but was sunk by a watery broth and dumplings that amounted to cheerless little scraps of wonton flotsam. Jimmi's sweet and spicy chicken was "crispy" as advertised, but that's bound to happen when drive-thru-quality chicken tenders are breaded to within an inch of their lives. Albacore tuna on a kebab was ordered medium but betrayed no hint of pink meat; the chunks had been rendered chewy to the point of unpleasantness. An order of edamame hadn't been salted, and there wasn't any salt on the table. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

For dessert, sun-dried cherry rice pudding amounted to flavorless bits of wilted cherry (may as well chew on gristle) and more of that inexplicable cinnamon oatmeal. Banana wontons (another made-up Asian dish) were about as exciting as a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with bananas sliced in, though I did appreciate the smooth vanilla ice cream served on the side.

Considering all the money that went into Jimmi Yin's kitchen, the front of the house looks like it was scratched off the to-do list after quick trips to Ikea and Futon Express. A straightforward setup of light-wood chairs, tables, booths and some cutesy multicolor light fixtures, endured through a smoove-jazz soundtrack, leaves nothing interesting to listen to or look at, aside from a few poster-size enlargements of Jimmi Yin's food. Tacky. These are framed on the flipside of a large menu placard situated near the restaurant's entrance. You walk down to the cash register (where another big menu awaits), place your order, sit down and wait for the food to be delivered by a chipper -- but in some cases untrained -- waitstaff. On one visit, a very outgoing waiter broke my heart when he commenced setting down our entrées without first clearing our appetizer plates. He actually set one main course on top of an empty appetizer dish. When I suggested we clear before things got out of hand, he instructed us to just move our used plates to the tables behind us.

Sitting placidly in a trough of ice at the cash register, a glimmer of hope: a thorough array of Asian beers (Kirin, Sapporo, etc.) and bottles of J. & H. Selbach riesling. German whites make some of the best pairings with spicy Eastern foods, a fact often overlooked by both Asian restaurateurs and their customers.

With that kitchen stuff, those cooks, those big menus and that riesling, everything's in place for Jimmi Yin's to be the start of something big -- a concept that would draw crowds and perhaps morph into a successful chain some day. For now, management is restructuring its menu and looking to lower prices as a way to bring in more business. Meanwhile, the Vulcan still waits for a chance to shine. On one of my visits, a manager told me the only foods to see the porcelain-enameled inside of that beauty were pork short ribs (think mediocre Texas barbecue), frozen cookie dough and an Indonesian-style quartered chicken that has since been removed from the menu.

That's like filling an $81 Riedel crystal wine glass with Three-Buck Chuck.

Correction published 6/9/04: In the original version of this review, we mistakenly referred to undercooked potatoes in the Malaysian rice bowl. The potatoes weren't undercooked; they were slices of daikon radish. The incorrect sentence has been extracted from the above version.

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