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Dungeness and Flagons 

Wednesday, Dec 30 1998
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Jasmine House
2301 Clement (at 24th Avenue), 668-3382. Open Wednesday through Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights, to 11 p.m. weekends. Reservations necessary for weekend dinners. The dining room is wheelchair accessible, the restroom is not. Parking: pray for a slot in the lot next to the Four Star Theater. Muni: 2 Clement, 29 Sunset. Sound level: quiet most weeknights, somewhat festive on the weekend.

The Dungeness crab at Jasmine House is so utterly alluring, it's difficult to eat anything else there. Most diners do order other selections from a menu comprising the usual top-40 Vietnamese culinary hits, but once the crab lands -- and you'll see at least one on every table -- everything else just languishes forgotten. Only one other dish, the garlic noodles, consistently makes the journey from the serving platters to the plates, where it takes the function of the favored bed for the crab sauce, ensuring that not a drop will go unsopped.

If this particular combination sounds familiar, it may be that you've encountered it at bustling Thanh Long in the outermost Sunset (which introduced these flavors to the city) or at that restaurant's ritzy Polk Street spinoff, Crustacean. Ironically, the one dish I won't order again at either of those restaurants is the overcooked roast crab for which they're famous. (I prefer their other seafood specialties.) But this time of year, when the local Dungeness season opens, roast crab becomes a compulsion. An old friend who lives in the Richmond urged me to try his favorite neighborhood crab-haunt, Jasmine House.

This temple of the golden crab is a pleasantly plain, smallish restaurant in the mid-Richmond "New Chinatown." Clement Street's bright lights, video parlors, and fast-breeding eateries have made the neighborhood a nighttime date destination for the western half of the city, and given the driveway-ridden residential neighborhood on the side streets, parking's become even more elusive than in the old Chinatown. (One neighborhood secret is the legal parking after 8 p.m. in the bus stop diagonally opposite the restaurant; risk-takers invariably grab these spots at 7:30 p.m. sharp.) At our last visit on a weekend evening, Jasmine House was at capacity. The salt 'n' soy crowd included three birthday parties (of five, eight, and 20 people) and another horde of celebrators who were leaving just as we entered. After a few minutes' wait for furniture-moving, we wound up at a table directly over one of the overzealous heat vents, enduring an equatorial summer while watching icy rain pour down outside.

The roast crab, priced according to the market and the size (our large one two weeks ago was $30, feeding four with no leftovers), was astonishingly sweet and moist, among the best Dungeness I've eaten anywhere. You have a choice of three sauces for it. The simple luxury of the black peppery garlic-butter sauce probably makes the best sop for the minimally dressed garlic noodles ($5), which call for extra liquid. The roast crab with jalapenos had a smaller amount of slightly sweet, subtly delicious sauce, with rather mild cubed jalapenos (typical of the species in winter) stuffing the hollow under the central carapace. I haven't yet tried the red chile sauce version, but a young Southeast Asian couple nearby, with the nice manners of early courtship, were delicately demolishing a whole crab each in this fearsome-looking thick scarlet sauce, evidently enjoying it thoroughly. Those of us not motivated by a new love affair may find it difficult to maintain such daintiness with the juicy crustaceans; alas, Jasmine House doesn't provide bibs, and you have to ask for extra napkins.

A short, pragmatic wine list features a few basic varietals (unfortunately not including GewYrz, the usual Asian-food solution) in affordable supermarket brands like Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson (all under $20). None of it's up to a top-notch seafood dinner. Several beers (including Vietnam's tasty "33" brand) and Vietnamese iced tea and coffee are also available.

Open since 1996, the restaurant first stirred interest less with its crab (which has since come into its own) than with the regular Vietnamese menu, so we forced ourselves just this once to postpone gratification and start with some appetizers. The best of these was "grilled" skewered squid ($5.25); there were no actual grill marks, so they were probably broiled. Their surfaces were crosshatched until they looked like baby corn on the cob, tenderizing the meat and absorbing the smoky glaze so that the squid tasted closer to shrimp. The garnish of pickled julienned carrot was a wonderful complement. We also enjoyed shrimp and pork rolls ($5) in steamed rice paper wrappers. We couldn't detect much pork flavor, and the cubes of lightly boiled white shrimp were of a bland pale subspecies that tasted closer to squid. For all of that, these were very nice, mainly vegetable rolls, with fresh crunchy heaps of basil and lettuce contrasting with slim, slippery rice noodles. Alongside came a spicy, powerful bean-based dipping sauce scattered with minced peanuts.

Two other starters were not so pleasing; now that crab has become king here, the rest of the menu seems to have suffered. Asparagus and fresh crab soup ($10 to serve two) was ample to serve four, especially since the four of us didn't much like it. It was a cornstarch-thickened egg-drop broth with finely shredded crab meat, a pleasant jolt of dark sesame oil -- and canned, white, mushy asparagus, a sad surprise when fresh local asparagus is currently so plentiful. Shrimp rolled around sugar cane ($9), a dish devised at the one-time royal palace at Hue, is an exacting test of any Vietnamese restaurant, and Jasmine's version didn't pass. The shrimp were evidently the same limp white weenies as in the shrimp and pork roll; minced to paste and shaped around sticks of sugar cane before cooking, they had the approximate mouth-feel of foam rubber, and not much more flavor. The sugar cane spines -- which the diner removes from the roll, after the cane has lent some sweet moisture to the seafood -- were dried-out sticks with nothing to contribute. At least the trimmings were lavish: Along with the usual lettuce, rice paper crepes, and mint to wrap up the shrimp balls (they become do-it-yourself Vietnamese burrito-salads), there were carrots, cucumbers, and rice noodles. The servers, gracious and swift but busy feeding the multitudes, didn't ask if we needed instructions for eating the dish, but they may have guessed that we already knew.

With eyes bigger than our stomachs, we'd ordered a couple of main courses to supplement the seafood. The vegetarian section of the menu furnished mixed vegetables in coconut and curry ($6.50), a medley of winter produce in a sweet, mild sauce. I wouldn't call it riveting, but it proved its worth by supplying extra sauce for the noodles. For a finale, we tried beef fondue ($12). A server brings a portable gas burner and sets it in the center of your table, topping it with a pot of boiling vinegar. Alongside comes a plate of thin-sliced raw beef and white onion slivers, and another arrayed with the usual wrapping components (rice paper, lettuce, mint, etc.). You drop some onions into the vat and, using chopsticks, swirl some meat around and cook it speedily, since two seconds too long will turn it into cardboard. Even rare, the beef still emerges tasting merely like sour cow -- we'd ordered the dish expecting a cooking liquid more complex than straight vinegar.

A number of desserts are listed on the menu. The only one that's consistently available nowadays is fried bananas. But who really needs dessert (or anything else, for that matter) when the crab is so sweet?

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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