Chinese food — broadly conceived — was among the first foreign cuisines to be adapted to the tastes of the American dining public. But in Pittsburgh, anyway, its sophistication has lagged behind the cuisines of other nations which have gained popularity more recently; while local restaurants now explore the regional cooking of Italy, India and several other European and Asian countries, Chinese restaurants have remained largely stuck in tired reruns of kung pao chicken and beef in brown sauce.
But now, an exciting development stands to revive the local Chinese-food scene: the arrival of hand-pulled noodles. Not only are these tender yet robust noodles themselves superior to any that come in a package, but they also seem to inspire dishes of an equally fresh and delicious nature.
Jade Grille, situated in a former bank (complete with an intimate little dining room in the vault) along Mount Lebanon's Washington Road, is not primarily a noodle house. But the promise of fresh noodles hastened our desire to visit. Other sections of the menu intrigued us, too, such as the open-flame skewers. These were not big kebabs, but diminutive twigs of bamboo holding together just a few carefully considered morsels. With sushi and stir-fries comprising the remainder of Jade Grille's offerings, we wondered which items were the specialties of the kitchen, and which — if any — might be subject to the rote production of the familiar.
Our appetizer course suggested a well-rounded kitchen at the top of its game. Modestly named "steamed dumplings" were, in fact, highly esteemed soup dumplings. These dim-sum treats, brought to the table in their bamboo steaming basket, each contained a succulent meatball enveloped in a rich burst of its own broth. The velvety wrappers contributed both to the dumplings' varied texture and harmonious flavor.
Sichuan dumplings, bathed in deep-vermilion chili sauce, were an altogether different experience, but just as delicious in their slippery, spicy savoriness. Dan dan noodles, a common street food only recently appearing on local menus, put Jade Grille's fresh hand-pulled noodles center stage, augmented with chili oil, crisped bits of pork and bright scallions.
Then came our skewer of three quail eggs wrapped in bacon. Bacon and eggs, that classic American big-breakfast combo, was here transformed into an exquisite delicacy. The hard-boiled eggs, each a modest mouthful, remained tender, with slightly creamy yolks, thanks to the protection of the bacon, while each small segment of pork retained its meaty chew despite edges crisped delectably over the flame.
The sushi list was long on maki but short on nigiri and sashimi; we ordered an assorted nigiri platter whose components weren't specified on the menu. The reason for both of these factors is an excellent one: Beyond staples like tuna and salmon, the sushi bar stocks only small amounts of whichever fresh fish is available that day. The assortment was thus comprised of a complete sampling of the day's offerings, which during our visit included red snapper, yellowtail, fatty salmon and succulent, slightly fishy (it's supposed to be) mackerel. All were excellent.
For a cooked entrée, Angelique was curious about the "cumin style" stir-fry, which the menu described in one inscrutable sentence. Did it have a sauce? Our server wasn't sure, so, as is standard in this situation, she returned to the kitchen to ask. We were impressed when the chef himself came to our table to address our question. The cumin-style lamb turned out to be marinated and dry-rubbed with a cumin spice mixture, then stir-fried with coarsely cut onions, peppers (chili and bell) and tomatoes. The meat was meltingly tender and the flavors of this dish wonderfully warm and assertively spicy.
Jason returned to the allure of hand-pulled noodles with his order of beef lo mein. It had great texture and tasty beef, but the flavor was a bit lacking in high notes; a splash of black vinegar would have been welcome. The house fried-rice dish was a surprising amalgam of shrimp, scallops, pineapple and raisins that really worked, thanks in large part to seafood that was plump and sweet and rice that was firm and not at all greasy.
Less than two months after opening, Jade Grille immediately takes a place among the upper echelon of Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh. It hews to an organic-local-sustainable ethos, and is priced accordingly. But for Chinese dining that is fresh (in both quality and approach) and refined, Jade Grille is worth it.