If coolness is determined by proximity, Cedar Park would be lukewarm. In many imaginations, the desire to find an affordable home on the margins of a major city translates to a lifetime watching Dancing With the Stars in a Chico's tunic. What could that person, hands taped to an iced skim macchiato, possibly know about good food? Let them eat breadsticks.
Luckily, restaurateurs are increasingly seeing markets away from the central hive. Eateries like Noble Sandwich Co. and Cielito Lindo are taking Austin's good sourcing and international flavors to Cedar Park. It's no surprise that Jenna's Asian Kitchen, the namesake of chef Jenna Choe, should be quietly building buzz with a sophisticated take on Korean and Pan-Asian cuisine. Suburbanites increasingly expect the same level of quality that they would find in the city.
But perhaps guilty of some snobbery ourselves, we were surprised by the striking contemporary interior (I shouldn't have been – Choe studied interior design at Texas State). A blown-up line drawing of hibiscus dominates the space, swad in wood strips and dotted with cubbyholes filled with the restaurant's extensive sake collection. Black Eames-style Eiffel chairs and large dove-gray banquettes give the space pop sophistication, not helped at all by the two flat-screens standing as sentinels on the back mural. Never mind, the sound was off and they are easy to ignore when the food comes out.
Jenna's starters are crowd-pleasers and only give a slight hint to the elegance of the entrées. There are various fritters, rolls, and battered things (like addictive jalapeño fries, $6), and a few things outside of that mold. Chicken pops ($9) are offered in salt and pepper, sweet and sour, and spicy Korean, and give Chi'Lantro's lauded K-pops a run for their money. The Thai red curry mussels swam in hedonistic coconut milk. Cherry tomatoes and grilled lemon gave the dish some zip. Unfortunately, the baguette served alongside was grocery-store lackluster. We could only imagine how great sopping would have been if the bread was made in-house.
Despite our focus on the fresher dishes, we did find some fried classics irresistible. Crab Rangoon ($9) is one of the few foods that survived Fifties Polynesia with its reputation still intact. It appears mimeographed on menu after menu because it hits all the right receptors. There's not much sense of messing with the formula of fried wonton, cream cheese, and crab, but we give Jenna's points for trying. Our host (we are guessing it was floor manager Ha Na Choe, who helps run the place with her brother and Jenna's husband, founder Min) for the evening advertised them as the best we would ever have, and she is perhaps right. It's certainly the most considered with its careful tumble of microgreens and insistence of using blue crab instead of something more Kardashian.
That gave a taste of what the kitchen could do with American-Chinese and Pan-Asian classics. There are plenty of those on the menu – from chicken lomein ($10) to General Tso's chicken ($9) – and they are mostly done well. We suspect it was an off night for the kimchi fried rice with pork belly ($13) given its purported popularity. We were served an almost inedible San Francisco treat with scant evidence of kimchi and unseasoned fatty pork. The Thai by way of China beef drunken noodles ($12), however, were a highlight, but there is much more heart in the more traditional Korean side of the menu, regardless of how successful the final plate (and oh, what beautiful plates).
The oxtail jjim ($21) had much to offer. The meat barely clung to the bone, the pot roast mix of red potatoes, carrots, and pearl onions instantly translated comfort, and roasted garlic provided a solid anchor. Unfortunately, sweetness dominated the dish. Korean cuisine is deft with sugars, most notably in bulgogi (Jenna's has two versions on the menu – an $11 rib eye dish and a $10 pork dish), but the jjim didn't quite have that assuredness. A bit of spice and more assertive soy would have kept it from being one-note. That nuance made the dolsot bibimbap ($13) much more interesting.
There's an appealing ceremony to the presentation. Dolsot refers to the stone pot that is integral to the dish's mechanics – oil drizzled at the bottom crisps up the rice while the heat from the sides slightly sets the raw egg yolk placed center. We were advised to let it sit for a bit before stirring the bulgogi, gosari, beech mushrooms, and shredded vegetables together with the side of gochujang – a rare example of patience rewarded.
Hwedupbap ($18), like bibimbap, is intended to be mixed at the table before eating, which almost seemed like a crime. Yes, the flavors and textures were perhaps experienced better that way, but the mixing coated the beautiful presentation in muck. Aesthetic oafishness or not, it had no traces of fishiness in a dish that included salmon, ahi, masago and tobiko roe, bonito, and a heavy shred of nori. It's a dream lunch, filling without being too heavy, and pretty enough to make co-workers jealous.
That all makes for a solid foundation, but we hope that Jenna's flexes some creativity as they mature into a business. There's already passion in the cooking and a sure palate; experimentation will allow it to compete outside of suburbia. They might also seek a pastry chef. The sourced desserts were an afterthought (especially odd when considering how carefully selected the wine and extensive sake lists were). Songs with good verses deserve a much more rousing chorus.
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