Dining Outside at iChina
It’s rare that a restaurant invites me in as a guest twice in less than three months. And even rarer that I find a reason to accept a second invitation like that.
In August, I dined outside at JiuBa, the bar-lounge that’s part of the opulent iChina restaurant that opened last year Westfield Valley Fair. Executive Chef Eddie Lam, former corporate executive chef at Straits Management Group, oversaw the expansive high-end Chinese menu at the restaurant and the much smaller menu at the bar-lounge.
However, a month later, he departed and a new culinary team took over: Chef Zhineng Chen, former North America corporate chef for the Hakkasan Group, whose forte is Cantonese cuisine; Chef Xia An He, who specializes in dim sum; and consulting Pastry Chef Graham Hornigold, who has worked at the Mandarin Oriental and the Lanesborough hotels in London.
Now, there’s a brand new menu. And it’s the same one whether you dine at iChina or at JiuBa. So, last week, I again dined outside at JiuBa, but on dishes that were all new for the most part.
With the evenings turning chilly now, just note that the outdoor dining area is not equipped with heaters. So, you’ll definitely want to dress in warm layers. There are lights on the building that shine down on the outside tables, so you won’t be dining in the dark. The tables are quite small, though, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself balancing a dish or two on the planter wall, as we resorted to at times.
Wake up the palate with the spritely Sanya Shores cocktail ($18), which gets a dazzling color from raspberries, its kick from Van Gogh vodka, herbaceousness from Lillet Blanc, and a big twang from calamansi.
Even at dinner, you can try some of the restaurant’s dim sum, either in a steamed ($38) or crispy ($32) assortment. We opted for the latter, which came with a sweet dipping sauce along the lines of what you would enjoy with fried sweet & sour wontons or crispy duck.
Three types of crispy dim sum are arranged prettily on a large platter, including ones that look adorably like pumpkins. These have a fried glutinous rice wrapper, with their crisp texture giving way to a slightly chewy one. They hold a sweet filling of savory minced duck and mushrooms. In the center are charcoal-colored Wagyu beef puffs with a pastry-like wrapper like that of traditional curry puffs. These are pretty crumbly, though, so don’t be surprised if they break in half when you try to grab one with your chopsticks. Inside is a saucy beef mixture.
Lastly, there are lacy seafood dumplings. If you happen to be allergic to scallops like I am, just be aware that our server mentioned that the “seafood” in these dumplings contain shrimp and scallops. My husband enjoyed the light, crunchy shells that held a seafood meatball-like filling that had large chunks of shrimp in it.
The Sweet & Sour Berkshire Pork ($26) gets a sprinkle of pomegranate arils for a festive touch. Like most sweet & sour renditions, this one, too, had a thick, very sweet sauce along with onion, bell pepper, and pineapple chunks. But what set this dish apart was the pork. Unlike one too many sweet & sour dishes with pork chewy enough to give your jaw a workout, the Berkshire was tender as can be.
You could live high and order the Peking Duck with Kaluga Caviar for — gulp — $260. Or you could splurge more modestly on the Kumquat Roasted Pipa Duck for $48. The preparation is similar to Peking duck, with the moist pieces of boneless flesh sporting bronzed crisp skin with the fat underneath all rendered. Sliced kumquats add the perfect burst of sweet-tangy concentrated citrus to balance the richness of the meat.
The Stir-Fried Black Pepper Beef Tenderloin ($38) is downright delicious, with meltingly tender cubes of steak coated in a rich Merlot sauce with plenty of black pepper for that tickle of warmth.
Hand-pulled, thin, wheat noodles ($18) are dry-fried rather than saucy, and tossed with shimeji, enoki, and shiitake mushrooms.
The fried rice ($18) sports fluffy grains enfolded with egg, minced chicken, and bits of salted fish. Much like anchovies in a salad or atop pizza, the salted fish adds greater depth to the mix, adding a twinge of fermented saltiness here and there.
For dessert, the name and description of the “iChina Koi Pond” ($15) doesn’t do it justice. It reads rather frighteningly of some sort of fish bowl dessert complete with a pool of melon soup and gummies. But thankfully, that’s not what it is at all.
In fact, it’s a quite elegant dessert that’s more akin to a panna cotta flavored with floral jasmine tea. It’s indeed at the center of a refreshing pool of melon soup, in which small, chewy gummies float with the taste of mango, guava, caramel-like muscovado, and tropical lychee with chia seeds.
It’s light and refreshing like the dim sum standard of almond jello, but done with far more finesse.
IChina is definitely not your budget Chinese neighborhood restaurant. But when you’re at a luxury mall that just completed a $1 billion makeover, you don’t come expecting that.