"This broth is surprisingly good," admitted my friend the fastidious Sinophile, swishing an abalone mushroom through the roiling, scarlet liquid in our hot pot at J.R. Bistro in Chinatown. At around 10 p.m. nearly every surface of our table was covered with plates and platters of raw ingredients: glistening shrimp and rosy beef slices, a tangle of emerald-green pea tendrils, Chinese greens and the combination plate of wild and fresh mushrooms -- half a dozen varieties arranged like a bouquet, each ready to soak up the simmering liquid in the pot.
Earlier there had been a heated discussion about where to go for the hot-pot dinner we were craving. "Chinatown?" he wailed. He had long ago joined the legions who've written off the neighborhood for the splendors of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley -- the crowd for whom no drive is ever too long, no traffic too snarled, no decor too spartan, if a taste of the best Taiwanese stinky fermented tofu or the most perfect Shanghainese river moss-enrobed fish in America were on offer.
But after he'd polished off nearly half a plate of crackly fried calamari with spicy garlic salt and a glass of Chardonnay, he settled in to the cozy dining room, tossed a chunk of pork kidney into the simmering pot and murmured something about the restaurant "not serving chop suey, at least."
Indeed, in the mid-'90s J.R. was among the first chop suey-less Chinese restaurants to open in West Los Angeles. With live fish in its tanks, the moderately sized spot brought a slice of San Gabriel to the Westside, and many were crushed when it closed.
But a couple of years ago it was reincarnated in a space beneath the hulking Ocean Seafood. Its current style is more intimate Hong Kong boîte than megawatt-lit Chinese seafood hall. With handsome dark wood touches and the glimmer of copper mosaic on one wall, the space seems a precursor to the dark-lounge look popping up everywhere lately. It's a place just perfect for late hot-pot suppers and well-made Hong Kong-style comfort food.
Of course, since this is Chinatown, Jake, they also have to serve kung pao shrimp and orange chicken. But regulars here might be more inclined to order the crab and shark's fin soup, the plate of chilled jellyfish with smoked pork or the stir-fry of preserved meat and Chinese sausage slices with lotus root and vegetables.
While on the Westside, J.R. developed a repertoire of "chef's specialties" that draw devotees even today: well-marbled slices of lightly sauced prime rib sitting atop a bed of stir-fried snow pea shoots or served over sautéed mushrooms; giant pan-fried scallops with silken, almost gelatinous meat in a delicate garlic-perfumed sauce and meaty frog pieces sautéed with sections of giant white mushroom.
Clams stir-fried with fresh basil are a flavorful wonder, and the kitchen does well with classic jumbo shrimp enrobed in a fluff of almost creamy scrambled egg. Shrimp with glazed walnuts -- baroque and touristy though they may seem -- are plump and irresistibly gooey.
The kitchen handles vegetables well too. Exquisite little bok choy the size of your thumb come scattered with chopped salty preserved egg that punches up their flavor. String beans lounge in a seafood-based, brandy-infused XO chile sauce that brings out the beans' sweetness.
More often than not live lobster is on special. Flash-fried with ginger and scallions or served in a black bean sauce, these crustaceans are carefully cracked for easy meat removal.
I don't recommend the noodle dumplings, though. They're serviceable enough but can't match those at specialty houses. Ten varieties of fried rice, on the other hand, whether Yang Chow-style, Singapore-style with a touch of curry or stir-fried with dried scallop and egg white, are barely oily and could make meals by themselves.
The bottom line
Is J.R.'s cooking on a par with San Gabriel's best? Maybe on a few of its very best days. Is the kitchen looking to break new culinary ground? On the contrary, it seems to have found a timeless niche in a central location cooking for fans who know what they like and what they're going to get.
That includes cook-it-yourself hot pots that will satisfy even a picky Sinophile.