Jimmy Wan's Taipei
Yes, you can find sophisticated Pan-Asian fare at a strip shopping center in Cranberry Township, just journey into Jimmy Wan’s Taipei restaurant.
A quick cup of saké takes the chill from the air, while the sassy Friday-night crowd gets our endorphins pumping at the stunning East-West environ at Jimmy Wan’s Taipei. I’m struck with that same excitement I feel upon initially arriving in a vastly different culture far from home. And because the best ethnic food is so often found in little haunts that only locals know about, when a friend said “a little spot with Chinese food in a commercial strip mall,” I was off, headed for Jimmy Wan’s Taipei in Cranberry, grateful for the lead.
The stunning interior is in such contrast to the inauspicious, repetitive shopping-center facade that an instant mood change washes over our group’s psyches, wiping away the hassles of the day including, in this case, the drive from the city. The food at Jimmy Wan’s Taipei is Pan-Asian, heavy on the Chinese—unless you take a seat at the popular sushi bar, where busy chefs are working like artists.
For general manager Jimmy Wan Jr., “The evolution of Chinese food starts with Japanese fusion and the influence of sushi,” he explains. We nab a taste of hamachi (yellowtail), silken, buttery and soft, glimmering over molded rice. Wan, an affable young man with his father’s way with people, moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco in 2006 to open the Cranberry location with his dad, who’s been in the restaurant business for 35 years. The goal: “To focus on the whole dining experience and create something special along with reinterpreting Asian cuisine,” says Jimmy Jr., who goes on to express his pride in an expansive saké list, the largest in Western Pennsylvania. Wan also lauds the Cranberry-area clientele, a generally young demographic with adventurous spirits. “I’ve seen people go from ordering nothing but General Tso’s Chicken to becoming sushi fanatics in a relatively short time span.”
As soon as we sit down, a server drops off a complimentary bowl of fried wonton wrappers with fresh, house-made duck sauce (using fruit, not just sugar) and spicy mustard (this will clear the sinuses). Wan says sauces are the backbone of Chinese cooking. These are appropriate for just about all of the appetizers except edamame, fresh, steamed soybeans glistening with kosher rock salt that you pop out of pod-like cocoons.
We splurged on appetizers that first visit: wontons, vegetable rolls, dumplings, crabmeat Rangoon with crispy skins in the shape of lotus flowers filled with cream cheese and scallion, and an old-fashioned scallion pancake served with a pungent hot-chili oil that has a 10-second delay. Your taste buds will appreciate the warmth.
To counter the invigorating spices, we found comfort in the delicate, elemental spiritual quality of miso soup floating with tofu, seaweed, shiitake mushroom and scallion. While on the subject of soup, know that fresh wonton soup with roast pork, napa cabbage, pork wontons and scallion is proof that authenticity and improvisation are compatible. It brings the standard Chinese broth into the modern realm. Note the tag “fresh”—the grass is not always greener on the other side, but sometimes it is more aromatic.
Between courses we were flagging. But a heaping plate of shrimp and scallops, Sichuan-style, with nicely tumbled vegetables got us back into the game. I love the deep earthy tones in a dish of sautéed eggplant with spicy garlic sauce. A tangerine-orange filet mignon, 10-ounce medallions with orange peel and a tangy marmalade, offers a sophisticated, citrus-y sweetness to a no-miss cut of meat. For the less adventurous, Kung Pao filet mignon is the way to go.
The second time around, we became better at deploying the menu. We cut both an extra-crispy egg roll and doughy spring roll into pieces. The universal thrill of wrapping and unwrapping applies to food, in this case unraveling time-honored armature and adding duck or mustard sauce as you please. I like an aromatic hot-and-sour soup with fresh tofu, egg, bamboo, mushroom, shredded pork and scallion, full-flavored and spicy without going overboard, foiling subtler flavors. It satisfies my quest for hot and spicy, a reaction to the “Irish food” of my childhood and my father’s cautious taste for overcooked meat and potatoes.
We took our server’s suggestion for lettuce duck wrap, big enough to share three or four ways—maybe the first time in years I’ve found a good use for iceberg lettuce, in this case, as a pocket for an eclectic mix of diced duck meat, dried cranberry, water chestnuts, and red and green pepper. Tastier than chicken, the duck provides a contrast and counterpoint that I like. Chilean sea bass is Wan’s favorite dish, and I can say mine now, too. This buttery fish with a lot of body and a flake as big as a domino is presented dorsal side up with a honey/miso marinade that (by first pan-searing and then baking) adds sweetness and a slight crunch. Head sushi chef Dan Forester, with Taipei for 11 years, invented the sauce.
Good Chinese/Japanese cooking is like good cooking anywhere today. Fresh, high-quality ingredients, the hallmark of Pan-Asian cuisine, allow guests to imagine buying the food from local vendors on a bustling Singapore street just as easily as they can picture themselves dining in a fancy hotel restaurant replete with tuxedoed servers bearing hot, scented towels. As global boundaries shift, cultures blur and the world becomes more familiar with cuisines from diverse cultures, a gastronomic sampling of unadulterated traditions is a lovely thing.
There is a revolution in food, and it is all about simplicity and preserving the uniqueness of each ingredient—until dessert. No tofu mousse or green-tea ice cream here, but I will usually kill for a trashy American cheesecake. Wan’s is wonderfully dense and all about the crust.
If a lively sanctuary sounds like an oxymoron you’d be interested in, check out Jimmy Wan’s Taipei on a weekend night. In these anxious times, a restaurant like this is restorative.
1686 Route 228, Cranberry. Info: 724/778-8978, taipeipgh.com.