Header photo credit: The Jungle
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If you found that the dermatologist you were going to see also specialised in cardiology, psychiatry, obstetrics and knee replacement, it might give you pause. Could he really be competent in so many different areas? Isn’t a jack of all trades a master of none?
When you see that the online menu of The Jungle in Jordan includes Mexican food, Tibetan food, American BBQ, pizzas, pastas (one of which is Cajun) and international snacks, you likewise pause. Restaurants capsize regularly under the weight of one cuisine. How can The Jungle, a small place at that, handle so many? You and your wife paddle upriver into the culinary heart of The Jungle to find out.
It’s not Heart of Darkness jungle. It’s not crocs-popping-out-of-the-river à la Disney’s Jungle Cruise. It’s Graceland’s Jungle Room, a spray of foliage here, a palm tree there, jungle wallpaper, strings of lights. This is really tiki-lounge jungle, something like Trader Vic’s minus the maidens in coconut-shell brassieres. It is an exotic chamber within life’s Imaginarium where you feel surprisingly at ease.
Tiki drinks ensue, the anti-malarial speciality of this outpost. Using tiki drinkware, flowers, herbs and tiki ornamentation, The Jungle goes all-in. Unlike the liquid jellybeans that are the sorry excuse for mixology at many Hong Kong bars, these drinks are uniformly good to great, not cloying, with distinct, faceted flavours. The bartender shakes them with style.
Low alcohol (which you prefer), they’re a superb deal at HK$90. Your favourite is Welcome to the Jungle, with rum, dark rum, absinthe, fresh lime, passion fruit and grapefruit. It has a smoldering cinnamon stick atop that looks like a lit cigar. It’s as though the tiki god had been smoking it and placed it on his head for a moment. The gods, of course, are wont to stick their cigars wherever they like.
Your wife’s is an elderflower paloma, made with tequila, Campari, fresh lime, grapefruit and homemade honey agave syrup.
If anything, you think The Jungle should channel even more tiki juju, jack it up to emergency thrust. In Tianjin, China, you were served a libation in a glass skull with dry ice. The drink bubbled violently, and copious smoke poured forth from the hole at the top. Your life is flat until you drink from a smoking skull. You’d almost fly back to Tianjin just for this drink. Trader Vic’s has drinks in sharing bowls with very long straws, held up on pedestals of ceramic maidens attired flimsily. Go for it!
You want to sample lots, but you can only eat so much. Insomuch as the three pals who started The Jungle are Nepalese, your battle plan is to mainly focus on Nepalese dishes, which you think will enhance your chances of eating good stuff. Nepal borders India and China, and the food bears strong influences from each.
Pani puri is a common snack in India, where you’ve feasted on them, crisp, hollow balls of flour filled with potato mash, onion, paprika, green peas and chaat masala (a classic Indian spice mix). You’ve had them topped with thick yoghurt (which you would have liked to dulcify the spiciness). The Jungle instead provides a teapot with tamarind water (to be added at the last moment to prevent sogginess). They detonate with flavour. Why isn’t this snack ubiquitous? As addictive as Doritos, they’re open to infinite variations. They’re vegan. They’re perfect bar food. Das ist gut!
Jalapeño cheese rolls, really cheese-filled spring rolls, are a cliché, but, my, are The Jungle’s tasty. Clichés are clichés for a reason – they work.
The Kirat traditional set comes on a platter of green leaves. In the centre is a mound of cumin-turmeric rice capped with pork-blood sausage. At intervals around it are little mounds of pork and mustard greens, fermented soybeans, fermented leafy vegetable, Nepalese tamarillo chutney, dried buffalo jerky and niger-seed chutney. For all your foodie swagger, you don’t eat blood sausage and can’t comment on it. You love the pork and mustard greens, likewise the fermented soybeans and leafy vegetable, both relatives of kimchi. The niger-seed chutney seems almost flavourless. You’ve learned online that it’s the seed of the African yellow daisy and used mainly for birdseed. The dried buffalo jerky is neither salted nor marinated and tastes bland to you, though your wife says she enjoyed it. You commend this set for its authenticity. You prefer food that doesn’t dial down. Better it should hoist you up (or attempt to).
The roasted pork belly is marinated in fresh ginger, garlic, salt and soy sauce. It’s porky and fatty and crispy and luscious and balanced ideally by the vegetal crunch of shredded purple cabbage. There’s lemon to squeeze over, just the sharpness required.
Then – deserving kettledrums – come The Jungle’s chilli momos. Wow! Somehow, like walking through a rainstorm and by random chance avoiding all raindrops, you have gone through life and by random chance avoided all momos. But your momo has come. Stuffed with minced pork, garlic and ginger, looking like pleated bonbons, they’re similar to steamed Chinese dumplings. And all things similar to steamed Chinese dumplings are good! The dumpling casing, purchased from a nearby market, has nice chew. There’s chilli sauce for dipping. In your view, the Chinese trifecta of soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil, maybe some shreds of ginger too, would be equally fine.
Haku chulu is a strong declarative statement: grilled white-meat chicken chunks loaded with chilli, garlic and ginger. You wish rice came with it. It doesn’t pander to the timid. You eagerly gnaw the leftovers the next day.
Your final savoury dish is possibly unremarkable in Nepal, but it’s remarkable to you: chatpate. It’s puffed rice (for all the world just like Rice Krispies) with broken, dried ramen noodles and torn pieces of fried dough flavoured with cumin seed, small chunks of cucumber, fresh green peas, onion and brown chickpeas, a fabulous texture-flavour mélange. It’s touched with lemon juice and mustard oil. The mustard oil is transformative. It tastes lightly of hot mustard. Its perfume is what snaps its fingers. It penetrates your sinuses and, breaching the blood-brain barrier, reaches to the very back of you brain, withdrawing with all the accumulated lint, leaving everything cleansed behind it. There is possibly no dish that would go better with a light IPA.
You share two desserts. The first is chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream. Both of you think the cake needs less sugar and a good pinch of salt. And there’s got to be a better garnish than ice-cream sprinkles. How about gold or silver leaf? Also, why chocolate lava cake? That’s same old. You wish restaurants would reach further with this dish. At an obscure tapas bar in Madrid, you ate dulce de leche lava cake that frenzied you with pleasure, massively better than chocolate.
The second dessert is a rice pudding called kheer with the comforting cardamom scent and taste of a Scandinavian Christmas cookie. It is only slightly sweet, just right. Your wife, of Danish extraction, likes it most.
The Jungle was created as a neighbourhood joint. It was not created with the intention of scaling new culinary heights. Good food, not earth-shattering, and a fun setting were its goals. Judged by its intent, which really is the only way to judge a restaurant, it succeeds admirably. For all your best efforts, you only tried a fraction of the menu and can’t comment on its totality. But almost everything you ate in the Nepalese realm was good to excellent. If you didn’t like it, probably the fault lay with your unaccustomed palate.
All your fears of a restaurant overextended were unfounded. You liked the campy interior. The drinks were not only a hoot but quite good. There were nice little touches such as drinking water from a pitcher containing fruits and herbs. The value for dollar was superb. Were The Jungle in your neighbourhood, you’d visit often.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Ambience: 3 (you love the jungle vibe, and the owners have done all that can be done with the premises, but it’s somewhat dim and cramped)
Service: 4 (warm and affable)
Overall greatness: 4
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against other like restaurants, not against each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
This comped meal, ample for six, would have cost HK$753 including service charge – a remarkable deal. The drinks were HK$90 each – also a remarkable deal.
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