The House Special Tempura Roll, a maki of smoked salmon, yellowtail, and cream cheese, lightly battered and deep-fried.
JJ's Asian Fusion (37-05 31st Ave., Astoria)
"Ohhhhh, you are going to love the yellowtail sashimi special today," Kimmy confidently and sweetly proclaims the very second I step past the neon blue glowing waterfall in the entryway. "It has a yuzu foam, a puree of white bean and garlic, and apple kimchi." As she guides me through the bamboo partitioned tables toward a seat near the sushi counter, she continues, "Do you want to look at the menu first, or should I turn the special appetizer in for you already while you look at entrees?"
It's only my third visit to JJ's Asian Fusion, and it seems the same staff has been here every single time. And they seem to not only remember each repeat customer, but also their dining preferences. On my second visit, I tried to order the shumai, to which Kimmy replied, "you had those last time... you should really try the dim sum. Similar ingredients and flavors, but a little bit different dish." So far all of her recommendations have been perfect, but I am starting to realize that there probably isn't anything here I wouldn't enjoy.
The rich and tender slices of yellowtail practically fall apart under my chopsticks. A fish with a high oil content, it is nearly futile to dip it in soy sauce, which stubbornly beads up and rolls off. So it's brilliant that this appetizer is topped with sesame seeds and crunchy fish flakes that add texture, and served with a citrusy yuzu foam to cut the richness, as well as a pool of garlicky white bean cream sauce that accentuates the bold flavors of the fish.
The apple kimchi is a unique take on a Korean classic, and the peppery glaze on juicy chunks of sour green apple offers a tart heat that wonderfully compliments the other players in the dish. This is anything but your ordinary sushi joint, offering yet another affirmation that the kitchens in Astoria are serving up some delectably innovative cuisine that rivals even the most popular competitors in Manhattan.
Aptly named JJ's Asian Fusion, this cozy restaurant unassumingly tucked on 31st Avenue features an oftentimes French culinary approach to a marriage of a multiplicity of Pan-Asian cuisines. The restaurant's namesake, J.J. Lin, brings both her Shanghainese heritage and training at the French Culinary Institute to create an artistic array of dishes that dexterously satisfy both sushi purists and fusion enthusiasts. For several years the location was a take-out noodle shop called JJ's Grand Tofu, but nearly a decade ago was transformed into the current restaurant by J.J. and her husband, Richard Lin.
One of the most popular small plates are the edamame pot stickers. For $5.50, four steamed dumplings are stuffed with pureed edamame beans, blanketed in a wasabi cream sauce, and then drizzled with basil-infused olive oil. Al dente pasta gives way to a surprisingly substantial soy bean filling, a refreshing departure from more traditional dumplings, and just enough heat from the wasabi to tantalize the palate but not kill your taste buds for further courses.
With the shumai ($4.95) six tender meatballs of delicately seasoned minced chicken and crabmeat are wrapped in thin, savory noodles, steamed on a broad bamboo leaf that infuses a hint of earthiness, and served with a small bowl of ponzu sauce for dipping.
The dim sum ($4.95) features the same chicken and crab meatball, but in this version beautifully wrapped in a thick dumpling skin, each steamy piece crowned with a plump, sweet shrimp. While I absolutely loved the addition of the shrimp with the dim sum, the playful texture of the shumai was deliciously irresistible.
My personal favorite, however, just might be the king crab dumplings. Four substantial, steamed pasta crescents stuffed to bursting with sweet king crab meat ($6.95).
While JJ's more creative dumplings are reason enough to return again, and could quite easily build a meal, the more traditional gyoza are available with a variety of fillings. In the version we tried, salty and peppery minced pork is packaged in a tender dumpling skin, steamed to al dente, and then lightly pan-seared. 6 pieces are $4.50, and hold their own against any gyoza I have tried.
One of the most surprisingly interesting, yet satisfying starters (also served as an accompaniment with many of the entrees) are the potato spring rolls for $2.95. Smooth, herbed mashed potatoes are deep-fried in wonton wrappers, sliced diagonally, and served with a slightly peppery, orange glaze for dipping. Sort of a citrusy, Asian croquette, they are remarkably simple and delicious.
A phenomenal dish for sharing that is not even listed on the menu is the rock lobster tempura, which you might be able to convince the kitchen to prepare with enough coaxing. Juicy lumps of sweet lobster meat are lightly tempura battered and fried, then tossed in a yuzu mango glaze and dotted with red and black tobiko (flying fish caviar) and finally crowned with magenta and jade micro greens. Not only do you receive a lobster tail full of decadently crispy, sweet, and tangy fried lobster morsels, but a champagne flute loaded with more of the golden seafood, as well. It's a real "wow" dish, and something off-menu you can order that will undoubtedly impress your date or dining companions.
Another wonderful off-menu item that might soon become a recurring special is an herbed, pan-seared blackened tuna ball. The crispy golden sphere surrounds wonderfully tender, pink ahi tuna, and sits in a pool of caper berry cream sauce and basil-infused oil. It's a delicious marriage of the ocean and garden, and yet another unique starter course that would be difficult to top in terms of creativity and bold flavors.
From the sushi bar comes an entirely different selection of small plates that exemplify a culinary mastery of Japanese simplicity. Live scallops are sliced delicately thin and served in the shell, accompanied by an artfully carved cucumber rose filled with the dark outer skirt of the scallop, a more firm, briny, yet delicious contrast to the sweet, moist scallop medallions. A salty reduction of the scallop juices accompanies, although almost completely unnecessary. Seafood this fresh needs no masking.
For those unable to decide on the sushi bar's broad selection of sashimi, I highly recommend one of the chef's combinations. The chirashi assortment features a generous selection of the freshest slices of seafood available, traditionally served on a bed of sushi rice. For $16.95 it makes a perfect platter for sharing, or a quite filling meal for one. The chef selects his own preferences, for a colorful array of the freshest catches available that day. My friend and I nearly devoured the entire array without dipping a single piece in soy sauce. The salmon, tuna, and mackerel were beyond exceptional.
The wok-seared blackened tuna entree features a crown of flawlessly seared, pepper-crusted ahi tuna shingled around a heaping mound of arugula tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, all drizzled with piquant wasabi aioli.
Enormous bowls of nabe yaki udon arrive at tables with enough soup to feed a family of four. Bright yellow mounds of singapore angel hair noodles tossed in mild curry are loaded with shrimp, chicken, and colorful Chinese vegetables. We fell in love with the chicken lo mein, a refreshingly light take on the popular sauteed Chinese dish, packed with much less oil than the typical take-out version, and more crisp vegetables and tender white chicken meat.
Along with several basic sushi rolls come a kaleidoscope array of Chef's Special Rolls. Tropical Roll #2 features shrimp tempura with diced mango and slivers of avocado, wrapped in rice and thin soy paper, all drizzled with mango and strawberry sauces. The harmony of the tempura batter and sweet glazes combine in your mouth like a sinfully decadent sushi doughnut that you just can't put down.
On the lighter end of maki spectrum comes the sashimi cucumber roll, replacing both seaweed and rice with thin strips of crisp cucumber spiraled around tuna, salmon, crab, and avocado, brushed with a sweet and spicy glaze and topped with caviar.
The Astoria roll is filled with crabmeat and wasabi tempura crunch flakes. The roll is then topped with thin slices of salmon and a red pepper cream sauce, all of which is seared to order with a handheld brulee torch just moments before serving.
With the same filling as the Astoria roll, the scallop california roll is instead topped with thin medallions of fresh scallop and a citrus cream sauce, flame-seared and garnished with red and green tobiko.
The crunchy and peppery blackened tuna roll is filled with crisp asparagus spears, pepper-seared tuna, then topped with even more tuna and wasabi cream sauce.
If you ask nicely, they will even serve up one of the chef's special rolls not listed on the menu, the House Special Tempura Roll. Filled with yellowtail, smoked salmon, and cream cheese, the entire roll is dipped in tempura batter, and lightly fried. Imagine a Japanese take on a bagel with lox, the cream cheese warm and melted into a rich sauce that beautifully accentuates the smoky, salty, fish. It may take a moment to get used to the warm maki, but once you do, this is certain to become a favorite.
At lunch time, you can choose any two ($6.95) or three ($9.95) of the basic rolls from the sushi bar, with your choice of miso soup or house salad. Lunch noodle specials (including the lo mein and singapore noodles) also come with soup for just $4.95. Several other entrees are available at special lunch prices, as well as a variety of bento boxes and salads. JJ's also features a rather impressive sake list, which I have unfortunately yet to sample.
Desserts include banana spring rolls, yucca coconut cake, and fried ice cream, and I saved room to sample a sweet finale during only one of my visits. The baseball-sized dollop of ice cream is available in green tea or vanilla, coated with a sweetened, crispy tempura batter, drizzled with chocolate sauce. From appetizer to ending, JJ's hits the mark on every facet of dining. A cozy setting, impeccable hospitality and service, and a killer kitchen that has yet to disappoint, JJ's is most definitely a reason to dine in Astoria.