You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

Review: A spin on Szechuan at Jia at Ponce City Market


We were a party of six, so we were seated at the largest table in Jia — a round one made of warm, golden wood. In the table’s center was a circular insert.

A Lazy Susan! Looking forward to spinning hot pots and rice bowls and pepper-laden platters this way and that, I put my fingertips on the disc and gave it a gleeful push. (Has anybody in the history of Chinese restaurants ever failed to do this?)

Sadly though, this Susan didn’t budge. It turned out the wooden disc was purely decorative.

<<Read more metro Atlanta restaurant reviews

Our evening at Jia, a small alley-shaped cafe in Ponce City Market, was to have many deflating moments like this.

There were the Dan Dan noodles, for instance, which are usually such a winning intersection of slurpable noodles and eye-opening spicy sauce. Jia’s version arrived poorly assembled. Pale, half-naked noodles had been dumped into a bowl of chile-bright sauce that looked more sizzly than it tasted, then topped with a mound of ground pork, peanuts and scallions. Tossing and mixing did nothing to infuse the too-soft noodles with flavor and the pork crumbles were tough and nubbly.

A braised fish in red chile oil also felt like a bait and switch. Though immersed in a fiery red broth, the small, curled fish fillets were as ineffectual as sea foam. One can only imagine the mood of the animal that would become this flavorless and textureless. I pictured it at the bottom of a tank, too dispirited to swim.

Our server, by contrast, was harried. She brought rice only after a couple of requests, when several saucy must-have-rice dishes were already on the table.

We had to ask for chopsticks as well.

RELATED: This Atlanta food hall was named one of the best in the country by Vogue magazine

And as for our flowery tureen of shrimp dumpling soup, it sat there merely looking pretty for many long minutes before bowls and spoons were finally delivered — upon request. (Ultimately the soup was disappointing and not just because the personality-free broth was no longer piping hot. It was the skeevy minced shrimp balls paired with spongy tofu blocks and too-large wedges of gelatinous winter melon that did it in.)

Of course, without that Lazy Susan, this feast was bound to turn into a DIY affair anyway. When some of your dishes arrive still bubbling and others are bathed in the kind of bright red oil that makes a dry cleaner shriek in horror, constant passing is not only drudgerous, it’s treacherous. I resorted to just getting up and prowling with my plate to get to the dishes I wanted.

So here’s what warranted a walk — if not a run — around the table:

  • The Kung Pao Chicken was well-executed and perfectly tasty, even if the presence of walnuts instead of peanuts was jarring when nothing else about this Szechuan classic veered from standard.
  • Shan City Pork Belly, a toss of meat squares, potatoes and chiles served winningly in a little wok, was a lot of fun, especially if your idea of fun is floral-scented Szechuan peppercorns attacking your tongue, rendering it numbed, tingling and exquisitely pained. The thick potato wedges had super-hot, crunchy crusts and fluffy interiors. And the pork belly, caramelized into little briquettes, were a flavorful gnaw.
  • Garden Duck gives your spice-addled mouth a little respite, but far from a boring one due to the palpable and pleasant aroma of smoke, the lovely unctuousness of mushrooms and the fresh crunch of leeks.
  • Batons of dry fried eggplant featured sweet, molten veg inside a light, crisp crust. The fries were dusted with a zingy spice mix and tossed with fragrant herbs. Delightful.

Silken soy swims in a sizzling sauce with salty black beans in Mapo Tofu. CONTRIBUTED BY CELINE LIN

For the AJC
  • Classic Mapo Tofu, silken and subtle, paired well with salty black beans and an abundance of searing red sauce.
  • Yes, the meat on the Wuxi Ribs was stringy and gamy, but I did enjoy the lick-your-fingers caramelized sauce coating the bones.

Jia is owned by the team behind Marietta’s legendary Tasty China. The king of that team was once Peter Chang (sometimes spelled Cheng), a famously charismatic and mysterious chef known for launching restaurants then disappearing to the dismay and delight of his cult of fans. Even though Jia has a new chef named Joe Huang, only “Cheng” is mentioned on its website.

And yet, Jia seems to be suffering from his absence. The dining space is more than dim and diminutive — it’s a little demoralizing. (The expansive outdoor courtyard is much more appealing when the weather cooperates.)

And when it comes to the cuisine, all the splashy hot sauces feel like makeup on an ordinary face, rather than accouterments that synthesize and celebrate their dishes’ ingredients.

A restaurant with Peter Chang’s legacy, and one in the highly competitive food playground that is Ponce City Market, shouldn’t leave you thinking, “This would be fine as takeout with some Netflix.”

But that was my takeaway from Jia. There are both classic and creative dishes here, but few that felt truly inspired. Maybe promised new dishes from Huang will change that. But for now, Jia leaves my mouth tingling but my heart a little flat.

Jia. 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. (Ponce City Market), Atlanta. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 470-343-2881, www.jiaatlanta.com/index.php.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

Good food in economy? Six airlines are making it happen
Good food in economy? Six airlines are making it happen

Is it really possible for economy passengers on long-haul flights to look forward to the in-flight food? Now, on some airlines, that answer may be a “yes.” While back-of-the-plane cuisine doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being appetizing, and amenities for economy flyers are increasingly few and far between, several carriers...
In Miami, working fresh local ingredients into Indian dishes
In Miami, working fresh local ingredients into Indian dishes

To eat Latin American or Caribbean food in Miami feels utterly natural, not just because South Florida is so deeply infused with those cultures but also because the flavors and ingredients in those cuisines are a perfect fit for the region’s tropical environment. Niven Patel, a chef and Florida native, aims to add another cuisine to those, one...
Plugging a watermelon with vodka ruins both. There's a better way.
Plugging a watermelon with vodka ruins both. There's a better way.

A friend of mine recently told me about a time in college when she and her buds decided to throw an end-of-year party in the picnic area near their dorm. Most of them were still slightly underage, so openly bringing six-packs of beer was a recipe for trouble. But they were college kids, majoring in liberal arts and minoring in high jinks. There was...
A blackberry farm chef goes for a broader audience
A blackberry farm chef goes for a broader audience

A big smile broke out on the chef Joseph Lenn’s face when an elderly woman with a cloud of platinum hair burst through the door and waved excitedly at him. “That’s Mary Evelyn,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m related to her. I’ll have to call my mom later and ask her how.” Lenn, 40, has been cooking...
McDonald's ends four-decade Olympics sponsorship
McDonald's ends four-decade Olympics sponsorship

Citing a decision to "focus on different priorities," McDonald's announced on Friday it will no longer sponsor the Olympics. "We have been proud to support the Olympic Movement, and we thank our customers and staff, the spectators, athletes and officials, as well as the [International Olympic Committee] and local Olympics Games organizing...
More Stories