When I moved back to Philadelphia nearly 10 years ago, my first apartment was less than a block away from the now-departed Warsaw Cafe. Throughout my years in the neighborhood, it remained an idiosyncratic, proud bulwark against the ever-growing legions of BYOB Italian restaurants. About a year ago, that kitchen finally stuffed its last pierogies, boiled its swan-song bowl of borscht and locked its doors after a run that dated back to 1979.
Now, in its place, we have Jasmine Rice, a Thai spot from Tom Jamavan, a former partner at Fairmount’s Trio, and his wife, Chef Ann. All the pieces are here for success—friendly service and an extensive menu composed of dishes that are both appealing and reasonably priced—but it’s still struggling a bit with the execution.
Thai basil meatballs are a handy example. SuperBall-sized and singing with the heat of chili peppers, they were nicely complicated with roasted garlic. But they’d been baked too long, which caused the marinated beef and pork to dry out. A drag through the light, honey-kissed soy helped, but what could have been spectacular meatballs were brought down a peg or two as a result of texture.
Vegetarian penang curry had a similar problem, and exposed a theme that affected too many dishes: excellent sauces and stellar minor-role ingredients stealing the spotlight from less-than-impressive centerpieces. As for the curry, the string beans, carrots and other veggies were all cooked perfectly; and the coconut sauce, red-tinged and lovely, was worth spooning like soup. But the cubes of tofu had been fried too long, lending their outsides a texture half a step too tough. It’s a shame: Less time with the heat and this would have been one of the better vegetarian dishes I’ve had in months.
Crispy duck fried rice was fantastic ... as long as you discounted the duck. Beneath the shatteringly crisp skin lurked gray, dry meat, the flavor having long been cooked out. Push that aside, however, and tuck into the rice, where you'll find curry spice in each bite, the salt and heat expertly countered by pineapple.
This was the way a number of dishes went here, and the cumulative effect was of a growing frustration that, darnit, if only that one component had been executed with more precision, the entire procession of plates would have added up to something really remarkable. Beef thani, anchored by a light, savory oyster sauce and mushrooms that had absorbed all that glorious umami, fell short from its strips of chewy beef.
Shrimpburi salad was better—much better, in fact—simply because those sweet crustaceans had been poached and removed from their liquid before they’d grown tough. Turns out they were among the best-prepared proteins I tasted here. The full intelligence of the recipe shone through as brightly as I hope the others eventually do. The mild sweetness of the shrimp provided a smart palate for the perfume of the lemongrass and mint, the spice of the ginger, the soft heat of the chili paste, to add up to something noteworthy. Mousse-like minced chicken, with its familiar flavors of scallion, ginger and onion, was a worthy filling for well-seared dumpling skins.
There’s a lot to like here, but I wanted to love it. This, after all, is the kind of restaurant that the neighborhood needs, and even on a recent rainy night, the tables were full. Prices are fair, and the flavors are consistently excellent. I just wish some of those key components had been executed more carefully.
Fortunately, dessert helped to make up for some of the problems. Warm, salty-sweet coconut milk was a comforting bath for ripe bananas. Bang rak sticky rice, all cellophane-shiny and meaty, almost didn’t need the mango draped over top, but certainly was even more appealing for it. Both are subtle, satisfying ways to end a meal here, and a heartening indication of what I expect will be greater future success.
306 S. 16th St, 215.546.0818
Cuisine: Thai BYOB
Hours: Lunch: 11am-3pm; Dinner: 5-9:30pm.
Price range: $3.99-$17.99
Atmosphere: Elegant and friendly.
Food: Lovely flavors held back by some execution problems right now, but there’s lots of potential.
Service: Helpful and kind.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014