It's a frigid night in mid-January and truth be told, almost as cold inside parts of the restaurant as out. But Jumbo Seafood, a newly opened restaurant in Newton Centre, is hopping. A big table of very stylish young Asians gesture animatedly as they point to fish swimming in the nearby tanks. Clusters of women and of couples exchange bites of noodles and fried rice. A well-dressed foursome sip red wine with their meals. A waiter, oddly attired in a coat and stocking cap, runs out of the kitchen with steaming dishes.
Jumbo, straight out of Chinatown, has arrived in the suburbs. After a late December opening, the restaurant has already been discovered. The Chinatown branch, which opened almost nine years ago, quickly gained diehard fans for its pristine seafood and rock-bottom prices.
Now owners Cathy and Kenny Leung have settled into a space that has changed restaurant names repeatedly during the past several years. Here they upped the ante in a bigger, more elaborate space than in Chinatown. The seafood delivered daily includes live lobsters, bass, scallops in their shells, live shrimp from Florida, and live West Coast crab, among others.
With a bar, mirrored walls, a modest wine list, and white tablecloths, this is a much different style of restaurant than the Chinatown Jumbo. The waitstaff seems a little discombobulated, quick at some times, forgetful at others, and constantly harried.
The food sensibility did travel well. Chinese are adamant about the freshness of the seafood they eat, and those from southern China are especially picky. That shows in the quality of the ingredients, from the live fish and shellfish displayed in the tanks to other seafood varieties.
On one visit, our Chinese companions discuss the specials with waiters in both Mandarin and Cantonese, rejecting the type of eel offered and approving of the striped bass still swimming in its tank. We order steamed shrimp dumplings, jumbo oysters in the shell with a garlic sauce, and crispy silver fish with salted pepper. Steamed bass with ginger and garlic will follow.
Oysters arrive, fat bivalves big as a baby's fist, bathed in garlic, briny, sharp and sweet. Four dumplings hold a plump, sweet shrimp each, a lovely bite to start a meal. The silver fish are so insubstantial that the crispy breading overwhelms any other taste. But on a later visit, shrimp in shell with a crispy salt-and-pepper coating are addictive -- a crunch, a burst of spice and salt, and the palate hungers for more.
But the crowning achievement is the steamed striped bass, which was elegant in its gleaming freshness, garnished with fronds of scallions and matchsticks of ginger. It's a big fish, and we're sharing many dishes that crowd our big, round table. But by the time we've come close to the end of the meal, it's the bass that's picked clean.
Although Jumbo emphasizes seafood, several of the meat dishes are also excellent. An appetizer of baby quail shows off crackly golden skin that contrasts with tender flesh, each bite pungent with garlic. Filet mignon in black pepper sauce is a beautifully presented dish, garnished with tomato roses and lettuce leaves. The beef could rival that in a steakhouse, succulent in texture, and with a fiery edge.
Minor dishes, too, are well-executed. A hot and sour soup has a noticeable tang and lovely soft mushrooms and shreds of egg. A gentle tofu and mushroom soup with spinach is so comforting that one companion insists on ordering a second bowl for himself.
But on a rather frenetic visit to Jumbo, when the waiters seem especially flustered, the Peking duck comes sailing out with its accompaniments but no sauce. The pancakes with it are hot and numerous, and the platter beautifully decorated. But it takes determined waving to attract a waiter who finally brings over a small bowl of hoisin-based sauce to spread on the pancakes before loading the duck, by now cold, on them.
And though crabmeat added to stir-fried peapod stems with garlic makes the dish more luxurious, the texture gets a little slippery. By themselves, the peapods are fresh and cleansing. Chow foon noodles with chicken also is duller in flavor and coloring than some of the seafood dishes.
After feasting we don't press for dessert as the waiters hurry over wedges of oranges and fortune cookies. But Cathy Leung says the Newton Jumbo serves creme brulee, chestnut cake with ice cream, and mango pudding.
A good excuse, I think to myself, to return for more of Jumbo's seafood dishes.