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

The morning after Thanksgiving, let them eat . . . cookies
The morning after Thanksgiving, let them eat . . . cookies

A handful of fresh cranberries, part of a can of pumpkin puree, extra chopped nuts and a lone apple that didn't make it into pie - after hosting a holiday feast, it's inevitable that you will wind up with tasty odds and ends like these. But instead of throwing them out, contributing to the shocking 27 million tons of food wasted each year (as per a...
The ultimate guide to a budget-friendly Thanksgiving dinner
The ultimate guide to a budget-friendly Thanksgiving dinner

Does Thanksgiving make your mouth water, dreaming of your favorite pumpkin or sweet potato pie recipes? Are you ready to pull out your crowd-pleasing stuffing recipe or are you a cautious cook easing into the kitchen for the first time?  No matter what your culinary skill level, it's easy to make a delicious Thanksgiving meal on a budget. Just...
6 easy side dishes anyone can make for Thanksgiving Day
6 easy side dishes anyone can make for Thanksgiving Day

Although the turkey will surely take center stage at your Thanksgiving table, a few unforgettable side dishes can't hurt. These simple sides won't take very much time or effort to pull together, but look (and taste) like a million bucks. This Thanksgiving Day, give your family a feast they won't forget by including a few of these easy-to-make dishes...
Healthy Cooking: Squashing another veggie into the dinner rotation
Healthy Cooking: Squashing another veggie into the dinner rotation

If my kids held a vegetable popularity contest, the winner would be broccoli. Now, broccoli would also be the lone contestant, because it’s the one vegetable my people will touch. Also, the world would be ending and/or the Wi-Fi would be down, because those are the only conditions upon which my children will willingly work together. The point...
Shop, then eat at these restaurants around metro Atlanta malls
Shop, then eat at these restaurants around metro Atlanta malls

We know it’s only an expression, but we really don’t want you to shop til you drop! Check out these spots to get some sustenance while you do your holiday shopping. Barleygarden Fried Cauliflower with parmesan and smoked paprika. / Photo credit- Mia Yakel. Avalon, 2200 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. ...
More Stories