Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Jane G’s

Jane Guo's newest culinary endeavor means to provide high-end Asian fusion to Philly. But is that what Philly really wants?

What sort of restaurant do we need next?

In a city that’s spent the last few years trying to eat its way out of its inferiority complex, it’s an inevitable question. Do we need better Thai food? Spanish kitchens that keep Madrid hours (or even just New York ones)? A Sulawesi street cart that makes chocolate-peanut martabaks, and only chocolate-peanut martabaks? (Yes, and I’d give my left eyetooth, in case you’re wondering.)

It’s a wide culinary world out there, with plenty of things to wish for. And if your list included Americanized pan-Asian food at entrée prices approaching $40, the wait ended in mid-August with Jane G’s.

Named for owner Jane Guo, whose Noodle Heaven closed on Broad Street in 2003, the restaurant has a pretty straightforward mission. “We really just wanted to fill a void of fine-dining Asian cuisine in Center City,” Guo’s son and the general manager, Jackson Fu, told me, noting the 2009 shuttering of Susanna Foo’s Center City location.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do restaurateurs. So let’s be sporting for a moment, pretend we never heard of Buddakan or Sampan or Morimoto, and make like there really was a yawning void to fill. What delights await a visitor to Jane G’s?

Popcorn shrimp, for one. That was our server’s highest recommendation on my first bumpy dinner here, when two of the only three beers worth ordering were missing in action and only 24 ounces remained of the third. (The situation improved slightly a couple weeks later, if only because the price for a 12-ounce bottle of Chimay Bleue dropped from an insane $16 to an only mildly deranged $11.)

Now, maybe I’m a curmudgeon—or maybe it’s just that I’m not nine years old anymore—but I resisted the popcorn shrimp. Mostly because I actually like shrimp, and good ones don’t benefit from deep-fried camouflage. She brought them anyway, gratis, and it was a disarming gesture. We laughed, ate the popcorn shrimp, and had to admit that the hint of wasabi in the aioli sauce was very tasty—and that the faintly sweet rock shrimp were indeed a little more substantial than our childhood memories of Captain D’s.

Alas, our server proved herself doubly right, because that was the most memorable dish we had—and topped out as the second-best of all my subsequent visits.

It’s not that anything was awful—though it was really a shame that someone had turned a $38 quasi-Thai “bouillabaisse” into a lobster-themed salt lick. Chef Michael Chan executes Jane G’s menu ably enough. It’s just that the menu is by turns dated, overpriced, and more adventurous to read than to taste.

“Spicy Hunan Lamb” wasn’t spicy at all, but oversweet and gloopy, like weeknight takeout. What made the skewers of “Tibetan Lamb” Tibetan? A gentle dusting of cumin, apparently—because it can’t have been the (non-emulsified) satay sauce, the (better) teriyaki reduction, or the Tibet- goes-tiki pineapple juice marinade.

I don’t have anything against dropping zucchini and asparagus spears into pad Thai, but not if it comes at the expense of that dish’s critical sour element. Meanwhile, both the green papaya salads I had were all sweetness and no heat whatsoever. They were fine (even if the chicken skewers topping one of them were dry), but aren’t we ready to do away with the unwritten rule that the more you charge for Asian food, the less you’re allowed to spice it?

There were a few winners. Chan’s five-spice Cornish hen was an aromatic wonder, with cloves and cinnamon suffusing its exquisitely tender flesh. Pan-fried duck dumplings enriched with pine nuts were sumptuous and crispy.

Nevertheless, even when there’s nothing wrong with them, there’s something about eating garlic-cream-sauced udon noodles one minute, miniature roti canai the next, and curried chicken in puff pastry the third that makes you feel like a dilettante. Or worse.

Jane G’s interior is snazzy—all black and white, with a glassed-in kitchen, a floor-to-ceiling wine wall, and dragon heads carved by a Korean master. But it seems like more thought was given to the bathroom design than the drinks program, which is built on the back of synthetically flavored vodkas, a rote beer selection, and a wine list that runs a straight line from Oak Grove to Crane Lake, with no detours in between.

What Jane G’s fails to offer is a sense of exploration, and the comfort it delivers is that of decent takeout joints that charge half the price. But its real problem is its premise, which is that Susanna Foo’s departure demanded a remedy. The past three years have seen a citywide pan-Asian renaissance stretching from Circles Thai to Han Dynasty, the crab-and-shrimp shumai at Meritage to the Vietnamese banh cam at Ela, the Korean taco trucks to the pork-bone ramen steaming up one neighborhood after another. This stuff isn’t missing from Philadelphia. You just have to wander around a little—and not even that far afield.

Its service is earnest and the space is great, but the only thing Jane G’s is more essential than is the Hollywood Video it so stylishly replaced.