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Review: Ju Xiang Yuan – Ottawa

 641 Somerset St. west, Ottawa, Ontario –  613-321-3669

Date of visit: August  2 – 5, 2011

For a long time I wanted to try this restaurant ever since coming across a review for it on the Ottawa Foodies website. The place does not have its own web page, as such, but a search using the Chinese characters for the name does link one to an advertisement in Chinese that provides a bit of information about it. I had a heck of a time translating what I read but it generally states that both Northeastern specialties and Cantonese delicacies are on offer. I haven’t been able to locate that same page again but when I was searching for it I did come across a link to site with the menu. I especially wanted to try the various barbecue skewers I read about but there were lots of other dishes I thought might be interesting and I decided that several visits over the course of a few days would probably be in order.

Before visiting the place, I tried to translate the name. The most likely meanings I could assign to the individual characters (聚香圓) were ‘Together’ + ‘Fragrant’ + ‘Money’ and thus the meaning seemed to be something along the lines of ‘make sweet cash’. However, on my first visit, I asked my waitress what the name meant and she said it was something like ‘all the good food together in this restaurant’. I’m not sure how idiomatic a translation that might be but clearly ‘Yuan’ in that context does not mean money as seemed to be the most likely translation I could find. I can only presume that ‘All the good food together’ refers to the fact that the restaurant serves both northern and southern food. I would love to hear from anybody who can provide a bit more information on how the name is actually translated.

Ambience and Service

The place is quite small and has only 11 tables, which together might seat about 40 people in all. It is fairly dark but not oppressively so and the place is actually quite cozy. The décor is typical Chinese restaurant with the usual sort of light shades and wall hangings. Mostly, it was quite understated but the faux-Chinese script on the main window was just a bit tacky.

I visited the restaurant on 4 successive days in order to sample as much of the menu as possible. During the afternoon visits the place was never more than about a third full but on my one evening visit the place got quite crowded and I was interested to note that the majority of the clientele were Asian. This suggested to me that the restaurant’s claim to serve authentic northern dishes is probably accurate.

The menu is very extensive and comes as a large multi-page book with photographs for each dish on offer. The various dishes are identified by numbers that the customers are supposed to use to place orders. I didn’t catch on to this until my final visit and that probably irritated the wait-staff somewhat. In addition to the table menus, there was also a handwritten specials board on a post that was in Chinese only. The writing was very sloppy and I had a difficult time recognizing many of the characters.

On my first visit, I was served by a young girl who was friendly and helpful. She was very quick and efficient and was the person who translated the restaurant name for me. On the following three days, I was served by the same young man each time. He was also friendly, but not quite as attentive as his female counter-part and I ended up waiting quite a long time for some dishes and drinks. All in all, the service was not that bad but I did have a few complaints…

First, after I overheard another customer mention lamb dumplings I was finally able to decipher a badly written 羊肉水餃 (yáng ròu shuǐjiǎo). I summoned the young male waiter and pointed to the dish on the board but he tried to tell me that only Chinese people like these and then suggested I try some other more familiar type of dumpling (Shao mai, or something, I think). In any event, I found this rather irritating and told him that I was quite familiar with boiled lamb dumplings and got him to bring me some.

Another irritation occurred on my second visit, which was in the evening. After my meal, I asked the male waiter to call me a cab and then tipped him fairly well after he agreed to do so. Unfortunately, after I had gone outside to wait, the waiter came out and said that the management had just said that they didn’t call cabs and I could easily hail one. This is not the first time I have run into a difficulty trying to get a restaurant to call me a cab in Ottawa and on this occasion I ended up having to walk about a quarter of a mile before I found a restaurant where they were happy enough to order me a taxi without my having ordered anything. In defense of the young male waiter, though, I will say that he looked rather shame faced when he came out to tell me the restaurant policy.

The Dishes

Kung Po Chicken

On my first visit to the restaurant, I arrived in mid-afternoon in hopes of sampling their northern barbecue. Unfortunately, they did not start serving these dishes until after 4:30 pm so I selected their Kung Pao Chicken and a Yan Jing Beer to go along with it. I would have to say that this is the best Kung Pao Chicken I have ever had in a restaurant thus far. The menu picture made it look a little insipid but the real thing was pleasantly golden red. There were lots of white chicken cubes and peanuts with short sections of finger size red chilies. The only real non-standard item was cucumber, which gave it a nice color balance, but it didn’t add to the dish flavor-wise. It was, however, only added in a fairly small amount and not obviously included just to give bulk to the plate. The sauce leaned to being fairly sweet with a good heat level. Most importantly, they managed to get the proper scorched chili taste that is essential to this dish. I gave this a Kung Pao rating of  5 stars out of 5.

BBQ Squid Skewers

Two different skewers were available: whole squid bodies and also tentacles, which were referred to as ‘squid hooks’ on the menu. As with all the Barbecue skewers, these were dusted with powdered chili, cumin and sesame seeds. I enjoyed these very much and have to say that this is one of the better ways I have had squid in a restaurant. Rating: 5 out of 5.

 …

BBQ  Pork Intestine and Duck Tongues

These were interesting, if not anything I would rush to try again. The duck tongues, I was surprised to learn, have a bone and eating them was very much like eating the tips of chicken wings (although I have to say I prefer the latter). The pork intestine was not especially enjoyable for me. It did not have an organ meat taste (which I don’t care for much) but it did have the rather greasy taste of that very soft fat found under the skin on some cuts of roast pork. I’m glad I tried it but I didn’t like it much. Rating : 2 out of 5.

 …

BBQ Lamb Skewers

 I like lamb but I did not enjoy these as much as I did the squid. The meat was fairly nicely grilled and the chili-cumin coating works well with lamb but the cuts were definitely not prime. Some pieces were quite tough while others were lacking texture. Rating: 3 out of 5.

 …

Jelly fish and Chinese Cabbage with Chef sauce

This consisted of shredded jellyfish, cabbage and cucumber. The veggies appear to have been salted and the ‘chef’s sauce’ appeared to be the liquid thrown of by salting along with a bit of sesame oil. It was mild and nicely textured. Rating:  3 out of 5.

 …

Yang rou shui jiao (羊肉水餃)

These were not as good as I anticipated. The filling, which contained scallion, ginger and, possibly, a little chili, could have been pork or beef as easily as lamb. The sauce on the side was garlic in a mixture of soy and vinegar. I liked the dumplings well enough but they were really nothing special. Rating: 3 out of 5.

 …

Shanghai Pork bun (Shang hai xiao long bao)

These were disappointing. The meat filling had a little ginger in it but not much flavor otherwise and there was hardly any ‘soup’ around the filling as is requisite for this particular specialty. The dumplings were nicely formed but I have made better ones myself. Rating: 2 out of 5.

Overall

Ju Xiang Yuan is really a little gem of a place. There were a few negative aspects to my four visits to this restaurant but on the whole I enjoyed the total experience. My only fear is that it will start to become popular and then feel it has to cater to a broader base thus losing its unique character. Until that happens, I will be returning whenever I am in Ottawa.


Ju Xiang Yuan (China Northeast Style) on Urbanspoon

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