Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gross Grub: Jaya

***UPDATED 4/7/2011***
After much thought about how garishly bad the food was here, I couldn't in good conscience keep calling this post "Good Grub: Jaya". So, I changed the title and the label, but I'm leaving the original content as-is. 

Don't be fooled by the name of my post. There nothing good about this grub. I try to keep this blog focused on my business, but how much can one write about cake, artistic insecurity, money issues, and trustworthy people? So, every now and again you'll get a short restaurant commentary from me about awesome food or not-so-awesome food. This post is about the latter.

I work downtown during the day, a five minute walk away from Chinatown. When the weather gets nicer, like it has been the last few days, I take a walk and have a little something. Being that I'm in the middle of my No Meat phase, Chinatown gives me a nice variety to choose from which does not include any mooing, oinking, clucking, or quacking buddies of mine.

My quickie lunches of choice always swayed between Wonton Garden, for their soup noodles with various dumplings or the Singapore Cafe; fantastic cuisine in a very chill contemporary setting. Well, Wonton Garden fell out of my good graces after I bit into a dumpling that didn't quite taste right. I immediately paid my bill and left the rest of my bowl uneaten. I got many dirty looks as I hurried out of there. Singapore Cafe had recently shut down and reopened as a table-cloth fru-fru type of eatery, and the service was less than friendly when I went in there to investigate. I was standing there for several minutes as waiters and waitresses rushed by, ignoring me. Fuck that. This is Chinatown was PLENTY of food options with better service.

I've been frequenting many Vietnamese eateries for delicious bowls of Pho. Sans meat, it's just not as yummy. So, I figured I would give Jaya a try. It it was Malaysian. I hadn't had authentic Malaysian food since my ex-friend Christine and I parted ways over a year ago. (Side note - I have many ex-friends. Too bad the one's I no longer talk to were awesome foodie. I think my report card over the last three years will read "Does not play well with others.) It looked clean and inviting from the outside. It's located on Baxter street, right next to the Tombs. (The Tombs would be the Manhattan detention center....the place they take your ass when you get arrested in the city.)

I hate standing there, waiting to be seated while there are empty tables, waiting for diners to sit. I can understand a lunch rush which would keep the waitstaff rushing and busy. But, it takes a minute to grab a menu and seat a bunch of people clogging the entrance, and it takes more time to serve food, grab checks, and bring back change to people already seated and situated. While your new arrivals are scanning the menu, you can attend to the rest of the people waiting for food or checks or change. Duh. I contemplated walking out and heading to another spot for lunch, and nearly did. I wish I went with my gut and left. I would have been spared a terrible lunch.

I ordered Roti Canai, a very typical Malaysian dish which a thin, flaky flatbread often served with a curry side dish which mostly serves as a spicy dipping sauce. There's often a little piece of chicken or other type of stewed meat in there. It looks similar to this: (see picture on the right)

It's something I often got at the Singapore Cafe, even during my meatless phase. I would just dip without partaking in the piece of meat in there. This is a very traditional and typical Malay dish that NO ONE should mess up if they are calling themselves a Malaysian restaurant. The Roti was fluffy and crispy and tasty. The sauce was spicy and well seasoned, but it was hard to get to it with the huge layer of oil floating there on top. Maybe it's traditional to be that oily, but all the other places I've had it has never been that oily. It was a bit of a turnoff.

Not wanting to take the tourist route and order pad thai, I got seafood pan fried noodles instead. Not Malaysian at all. What a mistake! Have you ever cooked with cornstarch? Well, you make a slurry of cold water and cornstarch, and then add it to the heat with the cornstarch already dissolved in the water. When it's heated and the cornstarch cooks, it turns into a gelatinous, shimmery thick paste. A teaspoon or so of this slurry is usually added to many Chinese sauces or dishes to achieve that thick composition and to add a little sheen to the finished product. While yummy and pretty when it's first served, it makes saucy Chinese food really unpleasant to reheat and eat as leftovers. You have chunks of cornstarch-thickened bits of jelly-sauce that never returns to that awesome saucy texture it was when it first comes off the fire. It's Just Gross.

The beauty of pan fried noodles is the crispy, crunchy texture of fried noodles topped with a rich sauce, which then slowly starts to soften the noodles. You eat it quickly to keep some of that crunch with each bite. I'm not a fan of white sauce served with Chinese seafood dishes. To me, all it tastes like is a ton of cornstarch cooked in water with some salt and pepper with the seafood tossed in at the last minute. I forgot to ask for a "brown sauce" and was sorely disappointed when the white dish arrived at my table.

Here's the rest of it. The dish was topped with multiple pieces of crab sticks. No, not crab legs. Crab sticks. Pureed white fish pressed and colored to imitate crab leg meat. I'm not a fan. There were 5 fishballs; pureed fish and dough that have been boiled then pan fried. I'm not a fan of those either. It looked like there were a couple of pieces of scallop that have been sliced from one huge scallop. And there were two overcooked, uncleaned shrimp at the very top. I attacked the noodles with gusto, trying to enjoy the crunch. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past the mouthful of disgusting, gelatinous white sauce that covered EVERYTHING.

I ate as much as I could. After two huge mouthfuls and difficult swallows, I gave up. I tried to pick out some of the seafood, but my taste buds weren't having it. I pushed the plate away, and asked for the check. My young waiter/waitress (she/he was sort of androgynous-on purpose, I believe), was much nicer than the one who took my order, and he/she offered to wrap up the rest of my lunch. After hesitating, I agreed.

This is why. No matter how bad the food is, I won't take it out on the waitstaff. Unless I get really horrible service, I am not rude to these hardworking people. It's not fun serving people because most people are rude, nasty, and have an insane sense of entitlement. Also, just because I don't like something doesn't mean that 99% of all their other customers don't love it. As a chef, I would feel terrible if someone didn't touch the food I just made. Not that these people would have cared either way, but I chose to go with the whole treat others the way you would want to be treated.

I paid, tipped, and headed out with my little doggy bag, which I promptly dumped into the nearest trash receptacle. I don't like wasting food, but I couldn't try to feed that mess to another person with a clear conscience.

Here is where Jaya fails.
  • Poorly trained waitstaff. Seat the people, then serve the people. 
  • Identity crisis. Malaysian/Thai/Chinese. No, no, no. Pick a specialty and do it well. Better to have one style that you knock out of the park, than several that are mediocre. I had a Malay dish and a Chinese dish. Both were mediocre. 
  • Poor ventilation. I don't know about you guys, but I don't like coming out of a restaurant smelling of someone else's lunch. Not good.

Alas, my search for southeast Asian cuisine will have to continue. Jaya won't ever be a repeat. In fact, I pointed a large group of Swedish tourists to eat elsewhere as they read the menu outside when I came out. I sent them to the Peking Duck House. A little pricier, but better service, clean restaurant, an a tourist-friendly menu. I suggested they order the Peking Duck, and they were very excited about that.

At least I know they'll have a better lunch than I did!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If this place sucked, why is the title Good Grub?

  3. "Good Grub" is just what I'm calling my food reviews of places I eat. I know it's generic and cheesy, but I'm too lazy right now to think of something else. If you come up with something better, I'll go back and change them all.