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Jess, Dine Out 2023

As always, I like going into a restaurant blind. No preconceived notions, no expectations, just taking the meal and the time spent within at face value. That’s why I was surprised by that which stands behind this all black facade.

The restaurant originally opened just before Covid struck, which quickly forced them and everyone else into closing. Since then, the restaurant has been in survival mode, and it has been a struggle to keep themselves afloat. From the overhauling of their concepts to the refreshing of the entire staff (multiple times), the journey of Jess lends itself to the experience we had tonight. This was a story told to us by the general manager, as we sat down for a preview of their restaurant and upcoming Dine Out menu, before they officially open.

The restaurant is named after the owner who is Korean. She and her partner wish to offer diners Korean food the way they know it to be, and not just what North American palates has commercialized it to be. This is not at the table barbecues, bone broth stews, spicy hot pots, or starchy comfort eating. We were told that the Korean food to come has only been seen in Korea, Singapore, and loosely in New York. A fact that was made quite clear to Jess’ general manager as he was flown out to Korea to experience this cuisine firsthand, and then execute it within Vancouver’s booming food scene.

The result is what you see here today, with the promise that they will continue to ebb and flow, trying new things and mixing new design elements to bring what the area and the community is missing. A promise to be bigger and entertain the neighbourhhood that has kept them in business during the last two pandemic years.

The recent facelift speaks to this. The once royal blue motif has transitioned into a warm orange hue with pink to fuchsia notes. The lavish setting immediately pulls you in. My head was on a swivel, and I immediately felt under dressed in denim, a belly button showing sweater with a hole in the arm, and minimum jewelery. You feel the opulence walking under the wave of crystals that lead from the front door to the back of the restaurant. They tied in with the chandeliers hanging above each booth-table. Upholstered in a florescent orange with a round mirror back lit with colour changing LEDs. The latter matches the boarder around the room, and it allowed the staff to set the tone by way of mood enhancing colour, all with a turn of a dial.

The utensils and cutlery on the table speak to the transitions of the kitchen. From the classic European bone handles of your fork and knife, to the the traditional jade green and gold accented chopsticks and their pastel coloured whale rests. For regulars, you will see the restaurant continue to adjust and transform as they find their identity.

Once again, Jess officially opens on January 20th, which coincides with the start of Vancouver’s big push to “Dine Out”. Here, we were invited 3 days before for a sneak peek of the newly renovated space and the following $58 Dine Out Vancouver 2023 menu.

Their regular menu will eventually be organized by portion size. Mini, small, and large to help make it easier to order, based on the number of mouths to feed. Today we would try their “Mini Snacks” to start. A nod to happy hour and the want to cater to their local community that has supported them. Familiar bites for those looking for what they know from Jess thus far. Be warned, they politely decline all requests to modify any menu items in order to maintain the integrity of the chef and the kitchen’s combined vision. But they have taken into consideration the nut-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free needs of their customers. The only thing they can’t and won’t change is the heavy-handed use of garlic and ginger, which is a large part of Korean cuisine and culture that they respect.

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We started with the Homemade rice poppers served with a peanut and mayo dipping sauce. This was not the best first impression of the restaurant, nor does it represent the full capability of their creative ability. It was interesting that they chose to serve it warm against the room temperature cracker. It left me wanting a warmup, warmer start. I found the cracker too large and too hard, for the portion of soft Vietnamese-style peanut butter sauce doled out. The peanut butter flavour was only but an echo, where I would have liked it punchier to help give the plain cracker more presence. For something like this you want a heavier, saltier, fattier spread, perhaps a meaty pate or some tangy spicy pickles. The dense cracker was too much for the delicate sauce. We were left with extra crackers and did not bother to finish this plate. This was probably my least favourite of the night.

The Arrowroot crystal cracker was a much better option, served with your choice of seasonal meat/vegetable and seasonal sauce (not yet listed on the menu). We were recommended the Beef Tartare. The raw beef was seasoned with a whisper of gochujang, just the right amount. This gave me everything I wanted above. It was punchy and bold, allowing the plain, thin cracker to just act as just a textured base for this one biter. The two contrasted one another well for a balanced bite, a far better cracker and dip expression than what we had above.

The seaweed roll was the tastiest of the mini snacks, as with the others it comes with your choice of seasonal meat/fish/vegetables and seasonal dipping sauce. Today we had their shrimp with lobster roll partnered with a creamy garlic aioli. It was like a gourmet California roll, but without the rice. It was hot at its centre, fried throughout for a crispy exterior. I could have used a little acid to balance this one out, maybe some pickled ginger on the side or fish roe on the top. As I would soon learn, this and most of their best dishes hinges on familiar, but yet still very different. This one had you doing a double take.

I was slightly disappointed by the Korean skewers. You too had a choice of seasonal meat/fish/vegetables and seasonal dipping sauce for this. Today we had fish cake and beef on sticks. Out of the two, the fish cake was seasoned well with an herbaceous finish and a slight char. The beef I found tough and overcooked. It would have been nicer more tender and succulent, something a lip-smacking sauce could have helped to remedy.

Next, we dove straight into their Dine Out Vancouver menu. As explained above, the 3-course set up will not be normal for them. So during the next two weeks: January 20th to February 5th will be the only time you can enjoy their food as a set. This is such a great deal at $58 person, considering the serving size and the quality of what you are getting. It is day and night from their snack menu, and best represents who they are and the direction they want their food to go in. This is especially evident as every element is made from scratch, in house. An often tedious and time-consuming project that the Chef deems necessary to be able to taste the difference fresh quality ingredients make in his vinegars and kimchi.

As per most Dine Out menus, you get to choose 1 appetizer and 1 entree out of 3 options and 1 dessert between 2. It is best to come with 1 or 2 friends to be able to share it all between everyone. The first course was especially hard to choose from. We got to try them all and they all tasted amazing, but completely different.

The Potato pancakes with potato pave, perilla leaf, garlic purée, chilli oil, and homemade rice wine vinegar was a solid choice for anyone who loves potatoes. They are cut thin and layered like a crepe. Just as fun to eat as they are to pull apart layer by layer. And their garlic and butter flavour was superb. They made what would normally be considered a side, the main attraction.

The Korean clam stew is probably my favourite clam dish to date. The broth was so full bodied and savoury with fresh clams, vegetable stock, Korean bean paste, gochujang chilli, and cream. We drank it all, but it would have been ideal with a bowl of rice, some noodles, or slices of bread to dip in to. The clams were chewy, given a nice mouth-feel alongside crispy bits. I would recommend this one out of the 3 appetizer options, although if you ask the kitchen the one below is the appetizer to get.

The Spicy tomato kimchi salad is one of the kitchen’s specialties. Kimchi tomato mix, tomato jelly, kimchi powder, and caramelized sugar. The thought behind this and presentation had it feeling like a Michelin star plate. Instead of cabbage they use tomato, which is actually right up my alley as I am not a fan of the leafy greens that make up kimchi, and prefer tomatoes in general. It is advised to try all the individual elements separately, then bring them all together of an impactful combined bite. Although I appreciated the serving size, like the other two dishes before, this it is a lot for one person, if you are not sharing. The chilli mix dried tomato tastes like sun dried tomatoes, with the chilled juicy bites cooling things down and the sugary finish binding it all together. Your job is to get the mix right.

For mains we passed on the vegetarian option for sesame noodles and got both protein options instead. The Braised short-ribs included jujube, broccolini, endives kimchi, carrot, parsnip, and a chestnut apple purée. You could feel how tender the meat was through the spoon. Out of the two we had, this was the heavier, more satisfying option. It serves to fill and would have been nice with the potato appetizer above, so I would recommend asking for both to be served together. Doing so would also help to balance out the sweetness we found lingering from the beef.

The Braised ling cod was very refined and a lighter choice. Familiar due to the clam stew above, but a lot milder with Ling cod, clams, pine-nut, apple vinegar, homemade seaweed powder, ginger, radish, and leek. Another generous plate to ensure you walk away full and they give you more than you expect, given the asking price. This was a flaky fish, but on the dry side. The extra jus and layers from the leeks and ginger added interest. And the larger rounds of daikon were great as a neutral base, that also absorbed much flavour of the sauce.

The 2 desserts options are both so different, and both worth trying. The Foret Noire was eye catching and what you would expect given the decor. Black sesame mousse, sesame praline, and cinnamon crunch. It was not as sweet as a it looks, fragrant with roasted sesame that could not be missed. There are cakey bits and crunchy ones, smooth gels and lush creams, a very well conceived, satisfying, sweet end.

Not as photogenic, but the one I would recommend between the 2 for taste is the Pecan tart with pecans and brown rice cream. This was a pecan dessert shaped like a pecan nut in shell, so clever and accurate in detail. The cream had a nice roasted flavour that would have been nice as a tea,. Its subtle flavour allowed the baked nuttiness of the buttery pecan to come through.

In summary, the restaurant has gone from an Asian-fusion to a style of Korean cuisine not yet picked up by the Mainstream. They promise to prepare authentic, elevated Korean dishes with management is already comparing themselves to some very prominent names in the Vancouver food scene; so expect big things their way. I will definitely return to review what a regular service looks like and report on their full regular menu then. But for now, I recommend Jess for something familiar yet thought provokingly different. Come in with no expectations and enjoy the restaurant for what it is, to have the best experience.

And don’t forget to visit their boudoir style washroom, with heated toilet and a glitz and glamour appeal. The entire restaurant is a selfie lover’s dream. So, dress up and make a reservation to strike a pose.

Jess’ Restaurant
2179 W 41st Ave, Vancouver, BC V6M 1Z6, Canada
+1 604-269-0103
jessrestaurant.ca

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