Thursday July 19, 2012

LENOX -- First there was Jae's Inn in North Adams and Williamstown. Next came Jae's Spice in downtown Pittsfield. Now Jae's Asian Bistro in Lenox marks the latest chapter in restaurateur Jae Chung's journey southward on a quest to feed the appetites of Berkshire County.

Tall sunflowers frame the brick path leading to the front door of the roadside restaurant on the Lenox Commons site most recently occupied by Tex-Mex, Berkshire Harvest and Bennigan's (and for those with longer memories, the Lenox House before that).

Claret walls display oversized Chinese calligraphy symbols and stylistic horse sketches; diners eat at banquettes, booths and wooden tables topped with faux marble and dressed with Ven etian-blue water goblets. Win dowed wall partitions and open doorways allow an airy flow throughout dining areas decorated with Asian pottery and musical instruments, Buddhist sculptures, screens -- and two brightly painted carousel ponies, relics of previous ownership.

In a telephone interview following a recent visit, Chung, 49, said he started cooking at his Korean mother's North Adams restaurant while still in high school. He honed his craft in Boston at small local restaurants and fine hotels while studying painting and art history -- aesthetic skills he still uses when designing restaurants and the visual appearance of his culinary creations.


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Chung has equipped the kitchen to suit Asian cooking techniques, and heplans to install a sushi bar in the entranceway lounge, which is currently filled with brown leather armchairs opposite a country-style bar area with sports television.

Longtime fans of Chung's cuisine can still find all their favorite dishes at the new location.

"I've been doing Jae's menu for the last 23 years," he explained. "I can't change it much, or people will get upset."

"If you go to a McDonald's, you expect a Big Mac," he quipped.

He prepares dishes as authentically as possible, including the spicy seasoning preferred by Koreans. Twenty years ago, he might have adapted recipes to suit American tastes, he said; today, people have more so phisticated taste buds and will eat "practically anything."

A recent family celebratory birthday dinner at Jae's offered an opportunity to sample Asian cuisine, including some of Chung's signature plates.

The Thai ribs appetizer with tamarind glaze ($9.95) slid easily off the bone, its hint of sweetness unencumbered by sauce and balanced by crisp lettuce and vinegary purple slaw.

A chef's choice Sushi Deluxe sampler plate ($19.95) included fresh raw salmon, tuna, yellowtail and mackerel; cooked shrimp and crab stick; and a Cal ifornia roll by request, served with hot green wasabi mustard and pale pickled ginger slices.

Our able and attentive server, Patrick, advised us on sauce strengths for the Clay Pot Curry ($13.95). A traditional nutty masaman sauce blended with coconut milk continued to richly flavor plain brown rice after the ample Jae's shrimp, chicken, beef and vegetable combination was consumed.

Beef Ok Dul Bib Bim Bop ($16.95) was a tantalizing treasure trove of textures and tastes. Thinly sliced beef, seasoned rice noodles and slivered vegetables (including a mysterious crunchy brown curl identified by Chung as a Korean fern) covered crusted rice in a hot speckled stone pot topped with a crisply fried egg, a fierce red sauce thankfully on the side.

Firm, perfectly prepared Chil ean sea bass ($23.95) in a subtle savory black bean sauce was accompanied by sautéed vegetables such as asparagus, baby carrots, zucchini and bok choy.

Chung's Pad Thai with chicken and shrimp ($13.95) remains the gold standard of local eateries, with crunchy crushed pea nuts, fresh crisp bean sprouts, slightly sweet rice noodles and a squeeze of lime to taste, all on a quirky sloping plate.

We passed on the dessert menu ($7.95-$8.95) of Western-style cakes, key lime pie and fruit platters; a ginger crème brûlée was the only nod to Asian influences.

Laughter emanating from the kitchen indicated the food is prepared with joy -- always a good sign of a happy establishment. Chung said many of his former cooks, managers and waitstaff have followed him to Jae's Asian Bistro.

Chung has confidence in his latest venture.

"It's a central location for Tanglewood, Lenox and Pitts field," he said. "It's a good fit."

"I've been doing this all my life," he explained. "I keep going forward -- I can't look back."



What: Jae's Asian Bistro -- Asian Fusion, Korean, Sushi and American fare

Where: Lenox Commons, 55 Pittsfield-Lenox Road (Route 7/20), Lenox

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Prices: Appetizers $6-$15, entrees $13-$25, lunch bento boxes $10 - $12, served 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Half-price sushi on Wednesdays. ‘Happy Hour' appetizer and drink specials 4 to 6 p.m. daily.

Accessible: Wheelchair accessible.

Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.

Information: (413) 637-9777

Rating: 5 Chef's Hats.