Yan Lyu, left, and Anton Marek of Brooklyn, New York, dine outdoors with Cecilia Leibovitz of Hardwick, Vermont, at Jing Yan restaurant on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

I had been putting off writing about Jing Yan. More than that, I had been avoiding eating or drinking at Jing Yan since it opened mid-pandemic, nearly two years ago.

I had nothing against owners Britt Langford and Leo Zhang, a couple who operated the stylish Bar 4 Nine in Beijing. I had nothing against Jing Yan’s space. Indeed, when it was Lolita, the dining room was one of my Portland-area happy-places, a spot where I knew I never had to worry about what to order because everything was, at minimum, pretty great.

One thing that originally gave me pause about Jing Yan was its fuzzy, unresolved concept. I could never quite figure out what it was supposed to be. For a while, it seemed, neither could the kitchen.

Was it Northern Chinese, as the original press proposed? Fusion? The first few dozen tentative photos on social media didn’t help much. Take a look at some of the earliest snapshots, and (forgive me) you’ll see plates that appeared more suited to a shopping mall than to Munjoy Hill. Each picture seemed to signal that Jing Yan had fallen into the trap that many (most?) pan-Asian restaurants do: They sacrifice quality for variety. And really, what good is being able to order pad thai, pho and a dosa at the same place if you can get better versions of each dish elsewhere?

Fortunately, that beta version of Jing Yan is gone forever. It died when the restaurant hired Iranian-born Bijan “Biz” Eslami as executive chef in early 2021. Eslami’s bountiful, yet understated confidence is hard-earned. Since 2009, he has cooked at practically every kind of restaurant in Portland: everything from fast food to Fore Street, every cuisine from French to Italian, Japanese, you name it.

“I’ve seen the scene grow and learned how much people in Portland love food and what they like,” he said. “But I kept my head down and never really searched for a (promotion to a) big position running a kitchen. My dad used to tell me that when a tree has more fruit, its head is lower, so I just worked hard and tried to gain as much technique as possible everywhere I went.”

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Artwork by owner Britt Landford inside Jing Yan. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For a restaurant struggling with its own identity, Eslami was a perfect match. Heck, he even spent time cooking in the very kitchen where he works now, stoking the wood-fired grill at Lolita a few years back.

To Eslami, Jing Yan’s cross-cultural ethos begins not at the impossible starting line of an entire nation or region’s cuisine, but from individual flavor combinations and techniques. He riffs on dishes he has made elsewhere – and considering his experience, he’s made practically anything you can name – like Pai Men Miyake’s brothless Tokyo abura ramen, which he transforms into a craveable Korean “spaghetti” with gochujang, wakame, lacto-fermented bamboo shoots and toasted sesame seeds ($17). It’s not actually Korean. Nor is it Japanese or American, really. It’s just warming, comforting and a little spicy.

While Eslami’s cooking is influenced by a spectrum of cuisines, his unique menu bounces from one thoughtfully conceived unicorn dish to the next, with precious little overlap with items you’ll find at other restaurants. How about a dangerously tasty deep-fried cauliflower ($15) with chile de arbol, roasted peanuts, scallions and cilantro that tastes like it came from a Manchurian pub serving Mexican snacks? Or twice-fried chicken wings ($14) dredged in baking powder, potato starch and corn starch, then tossed in dried chili and Sichuan peppercorns to vibrate your lips and tongue into an umami-fueled frenzy?

“Those wings are my homage to Leo (Zhang). We eat together a lot on our days off. Not because we have to, but because we like each other,” Eslami said. “He made some wings that he enjoys and I just took them to a super-crispy, Korean-style place, and they are probably our most popular wings now. We put “numbing” on the menu so people know what to expect and don’t think they’re having a seizure or something!”

If you go for the Sichuan Numbing wings (and I strongly suggest you do), you can blunt any residual mouth tingles with a bowl of Eslami’s Filipino-Indo-French chocolate mousse ($10). If the light, cardamom-infused mousse doesn’t help, the violet scoop of ube (sweet, chocolatey purple yam) ice cream will certainly do the trick.

Jing Yan’s Journey to the East cocktail, made with muddled bitter lemon, sake, moonshine and osmanthus, is refreshing and aromatic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Alcohol also helps to squelch the buzzy afterglow of Sichuan peppercorns. There’s no shame in selecting from Jing Yan’s concise wine-and-sake list, but Leo Zhang’s cocktail menu is a better option. Here the restaurant offers a few standards, like a tart, fizzy French 75 ($14), as well as several of Zhang’s own imaginative, Asian-inspired creations. My favorite, the Journey to the East ($14), uses Junmai sake as a base to offset astringent sweetness from bitter melon and jammy stonefruit fragrances from preserved osmanthus, a broadleaf evergreen with a gardenia-like scent. Served in a carved wooden bowl with a hand-shaped chunk of clear ice, this fantastically refreshing cocktail is an aromatic revelation.

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For me though, the best part of witnessing Jing Yan’s evolution is to taste how the restaurant has grown to embrace a more inclusive sense of “Asia.” There are hints in the Italian mashup of rich burrata topped with grill-marked slices of sourdough and a dollop of seaweed pesto made from blitzed pickled green hijiki, Thai basil and garlic ($13). Around the rim of the dish, that’s not a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, that’s Persian pomegranate molasses.

Burrata with seaweed pesto shows how Jing Yan’s dishes pull from many cultures. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When I asked Eslami about the dish, he laughed and told me how the flavors reminded him of his childhood in Iran, where he was indulged by the grandmother who helped raise him. “I was an only child, and my mother was sick, so she couldn’t take care of me,” he said. “Instead, I had my grandmother spoiling me. She used to feed me cream and caviar for breakfast!”

Look again at Jing Yan’s current menu, and you’ll spot a few dishes that you might think are out of place, like the blissfully sticky fesenjoon, a sweet Persian stew of confit duck leg and fruit, served with basil, pickled onions and mint. Layers of garlic, walnuts and thyme evoke French countryside cooking, but take your time. Add a spoonful of rice and suddenly, there it is: hoisin.

Duck Fesenjoon at Jing Yan is a playful take on the dish. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Maybe I’m just a little bit twisted in the head, but it’s a playful, non-traditional fesenjoon and with lots of garlic and the hoisin sauce, it’s kind of like a Peking duck,” Eslami told me with a laugh. “That’s the way I eat, and for me, it’s just about comforting food that tastes good. It’s great for sharing. I love that dish, because for me, it’s got everything, and it’s my culture. My Asian culture.”


RATING: ****
WHERE: 90 Congress St., Portland. (207) 835-0010. jingyanrestaurant.com
SERVING: 5-10 p.m. Thursday through Monday
PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $12-$15. Noodles and larger dishes: $14-$29
NOISE LEVEL: Saturday afternoon back-to-school shopping
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Nothing about Portland’s Jing Yan, a moderately priced, Asian-inspired restaurant in the East End, is flashy or ostentatious. From the logo, a “jing yan” swallow that represents domestic harmony, to the interior of the space, which apart from a mural of a Chinese mountainscape, feels practically untouched from its former incarnation as the Spanish-themed Lolita, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that this neighborhood restaurant is among the area’s most creative. It didn’t start out that way, but when chef Bijan Eslami came on board, he took Asian culinary inspiration in an unexpected direction. You won’t find menu categories for countries or cuisines; instead you’ll find inventive twists on techniques and ingredients. Start with a plate of numbing Sichuan chicken wings with prickly, tingly spice: some of the best wings anywhere in town. Then go for a bowl of brothless Korean “spaghetti” (really a gochujang-seasoned mazemen ramen) and a clay pot of Eslami’s lush, confit Persian-Peking duck fesenjoon. Thanks to Eslami’s breadth of experience, Jing Yan isn’t a haphazard pan-Asian joint. It’s a tightly conceived restaurant that unites comforting flavors and rock-solid technique.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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