Justin Fong, chef and owner of Jasmine, had luck in mind when he and his wife, Sue, decided upon the name of their cozy Thai restaurant. When I asked him about it recently, Fong explained in his shy but earnest way that jasmine vines are commonly seen in his hometown of Bangkok, and naming a business after a flower is a tradition that's considered auspicious in Thailand. Sure, I thought, luck might have something to do with the staying power of Jasmine, which has been located in a barn-red bungalow in Cooper-Young since 2003. However, as I began my exploration of its comprehensive, detailed menu, I was the one who felt lucky for happening upon such creative food served in a warm, low-key atmosphere.
As we settled into a corner table for dinner, Sue Fong poured our hot herbal tea with one hand and rested the other lightly on my shoulder as she asked about our appetizer order. We chose two: hot, steamed pork dumplings, and cold, fresh spring rolls; both materialized quickly. The dumplings were stuffed with crisp vegetables that melded into the background for the salty, earthy pieces of pork. A ginger, soy, and vinegar sauce was provided for drizzling and dipping. The spring rolls featured slender strips of still-warm fried tofu, along with chilled rice noodles, anise-scented thai basil, spring onions, and shredded lettuce all tucked into rice paper. The accompanying toasted-peanut sauce was sweet and mellow with the thick texture of gravy; we exclaimed over its lush flavor and spooned more and more of it onto each bite of spring roll.
We selected wonton soup and gang pad gai — red curry chicken with vegetables and coconut milk — for our entrées. The soup was steaming and spicy without being over-salty and arrived in a substantial white bowl. The red curry chicken dish was brimming with a light and creamy coconut sauce dotted with bright green peas, pineapple, and bamboo shoots. The sauce over steamed rice by itself was so tempting that I had to make myself remember to spear some chicken and vegetables every once in a while. The way that Sue Fong guided us through the menu and gave us her suggestions made me feel as though she truly wanted us to have an exceptional meal. There is no rush at Jasmine; the care and concern of the owners for their patrons' enjoyment is paramount.
Our next visit was at lunch on a Saturday, when we took in the atmosphere instead of just the food. A striking formal photograph of Sue piqued my curiosity about her past. Pictures of Thailand's floating markets and a sepia print featuring the king of Thailand sitting with our very own Elvis Presley also caught my eye. Restaurant seating includes one long banquette that spans an entire wall, and other small tables are spaced throughout; Jasmine has an intimate vibe and can seat about 40. The only thing that might pull a sensitive diner away from the experience is the stereo playing American pop music; I suppose hearing dusty hits like "Father Figure" and "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" might distract some discerning diners. All in all, I felt as comfortable at Jasmine as I do when I'm over at a friend's house for dinner. The companionable service allows for that easy vibe.
We returned to Jasmine for a late lunch on Saturday. Before we ordered, my husband decided to try a Thai beer called Singha (both imported and domestic beers are available but there's no wine list, so bring your own if desired). I asked for iced tea, and Sue brightened when she asked, "Thai iced tea?" I said sure, and I was thrilled because she brought me a curvy glass of hot tea and condensed milk poured over ice. I probably wouldn't have ordered it myself if I knew what it was, but it turned out to be a happy accident: very rich, floral, and super-sweet.
We chose the vegetarian steamed dumplings this time, and they were filled with chopped cabbage, mushrooms, spring onions, carrots, and celery and liberally spiced with plenty of black pepper, a welcome change from the sometimes bland non-fried dumplings we've had at other establishments.
Jasmine offers plenty of choices for entrées — soups, noodle dishes, meat or seafood, even Chinese favorites and a huge, separate vegetarian menu — but it's good to be careful in ordering since you probably don't want an appetizer and an entrée that both include fried meat or tofu. We wanted to try some of the chef's specialties –these range from $13 to $21 — because it's clear that we wouldn't find the same dishes anywhere else. I ordered the tangerine beef. The inclusion of crushed orange peels sold me on it. The flavor of the tangerine peel suffused the amber-colored glaze, and the meat's breaded and crunchy exterior gave way to a heated center. A nibble of a thin curl of orange peel provided a concentrated, candied counterpoint to the beef. My husband, a longtime vegetarian, chose the Mongolian tofu, a stir-fry with white and green scallions and red and black pepper; meat or seafood also can be substituted for the tofu in this dish. Substantial enough not to be the usual graze in the pasture, this dish hit spicy, sweet, and salty notes all at once and boasted a pepper-steak feel overall along with its forward flavors of garlic, sesame, and soy. Still-crunchy broccoli and chewy cubes of fried tofu revealed it to be freshly prepared for us.
Both of the desserts we tried at Jasmine were as unusual as they were outstanding. You will be much happier about your dessert choice if you heed this advice: Forget the common multiple-forks-but-only-one-lone-sweet-per-table rule here. The coconut ice cream is made on-site with fresh coconut milk and shreds of toasted coconut and pecans swirled throughout. With scoop upon scoop presented in sundae glasses, there was no talking at all while we each worked our way to the end. Mango-lime sticky rice is also offered, and it is not to be missed. Jaded dessert connoisseurs will flip because this is like rice pudding — but it actually tastes good. The steaming rice is slathered in a lime-sugar syrup, and on the side sits a chilled mango expertly peeled and diced. Tasted together, the creaminess of the rice sets off the sharp citrus hit of lime and the candy-sweet mango. These two amazing treats bolstered my resolve to drop into Jasmine again very, very soon.
Certain restaurants embody what I believe going out to lunch or dinner should provide; a respite from a harrowing day is key. It's even better if this break from real life includes a chef who expresses his experience and inventiveness through everything he creates. Add to this the kind of service that consistently can be called welcoming and personal, and the overall experience becomes one that beckons again and again. Jasmine is one of the rare places that hits all of these ideals, and I consider Memphis extremely fortunate — not to mention unbelievably lucky — to have such a knockout restaurant hiding in plain sight.