Jacky's Waterplace and Sushi Bar

At Jacky’s, the razzle-dazzle decor plays backdrop to a deliciously over-the-top Asian menu.

Photography by Angel Tucker

Jacky’s Waterplace and Sushi Bar orange starorange starorange star

200 Exchange St., Providence, 383-5000, jackyswaterplace.com. Hours Open daily for lunch and dinner.. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Valet parking. Cuisine It could be considered casual Asian, if you were in the Bellagio wearing a feather headdress and heels. Capacity More than two hundred. Vibe A bit like dreaming of Chinese food while under the influence of nitrous oxide. Prices Appetizers $6–$15; entrees $14–$30; desserts $8. Karen’s picks Sushi sandwich, Singapore chili prawns, noodles, fusion rolls.

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Chinese food used to be a sad, suburban outing. Get grandma packed into the car and the whole clan was off to sit around a lazy Susan and watch takeout orders shuffle out the door, while a table of tenacious teenagers ordered only enough food to disguise the scorpion bowl they were really after. It’s hard to believe that the new age of Asian cuisine is even tangentially related to the bland chow mein of yesteryear. 
In planning Jacky's Waterplace, owner Jacky Ko — whose culinary empire is spread across the state — had miraculous, and miraculously bad, timing. 
Doors opened just in time to greet the end of summer (plus!) and just in time to compete with an initialed Asian chain across the street (major minus). Both venues are focused on making beef and broccoli more special occasion than cafeteria fare and, naturally, they look like competition. But that's true only on the most superficial terms. People go to chain restaurants because they hate surprises; diners will go to Jacky's because they can't live without them. 
The best aesthetic indicator of Jacky's eccentricity is the fish tank near the front door that gyrates with movement and practically glows with iridescent color. So, too, does the restaurant, 
which boasts a palate that falls somewhere in between wine coolers and sci-fi. Surfaces are sleek, but color is rampant in both the neon-hued sushi bar and the seven-foot-tall, fern-saturated ecosystems growing behind glass. In fact, the gargantuan, multi-cornered room feels like the cornerstone of a cruise ship, a world unto itself in which drama is de rigueur and the water view is far less captivating than the planet-sized chandeliers made of industrial wire or the private dining room ensconced in glass. 
To be fair, part of the enchantment arises from the drinks. Few diners commit to a meal with full sobriety because, again, even the bar is addictively celebratory. Though there are classic cocktails, it's the mango, lychee and banana purees that stream copiously from the bar in vibrant grandeur. Those, of course — and the updated Scorpion Bowl, served in a ceramic trough festooned with Polynesian dancers and accessorized with foot-long Day-Glo straws. Consider it culinary bedazzling, where everything good seems even more fetching when it's coated in color and shameless sparkle. 
Lest one think, however, that the spectacle is limited to the decor, check the menu. There is certainly some familiarity (Peking duck and pad Thai) but the bulk is novel and dramatic in both presentation and price. Raw bar offerings are brought out with bamboo poles and edible flowers, but even the more subdued dishes have a covertly theatrical side. It's tough not to delight in the ubiquitously named “tuna sandwich” ($10), a layer of spicy tuna tartar topped with sliced avocado, an ample amount of fish roe and sealed inside a “bread” of sushi rice and soy paper. It holds nothing more than the traditional components of a good maki, but its clever wrapping and kitschy appeal is the essence of Jacky's: old school that flashes forward into modernity and then steps back again into retroville. 
Not unexpectedly, this Vegas-style showmanship comes at a price. While appetizers hover around $10, it's not uncommon for entrees to hit $25 or even $30 — a bitter pill were it not for the decidedly adept preparation of nearly everything. Gone are the oil-laden nuggets of breading that most places call General Tso's chicken; Jacky's version ($18) consists of large filets, lightly coated in a sauce so subtle it evokes rich stock. Goodbye, as well, to greasy tempura; the options here are not only delicately breaded, they're somewhat unusual — standard shrimp are usurped by both sweet potato and banana ($6). 
But, again, the kitchen is not as keen on updating the status quo as it is on transforming Asian dining. Sushi is on ample display, though its simplicity doesn't offer as much artistic license as, say, shellfish. Lobster ($30) is the long-legged showgirl of the group, stir-fried with knuckle-sized nobs of ginger and served raging red in its shell, its head and antennae the masthead of the plate. So regal is the appearance that it's easy to dismiss the challenge of getting it, burning hot and slightly undercooked, out of its shell. Scallops ($25), quickly seared and served with spicy black bean sauce, are another surprise. Some efforts — pork chops with lemongrass ($24) and rack of lamb with mango chutney ($26) — are almost too earthbound for a place like this.
Stuck somewhere between steakhouse fare and the ’80s influx of Asian inspiration, they don't hit the mark quite as easily as other dishes. Even the abundant and effervescent staff readily admit that shrimp is the sweet spot at Jacky's, in part because every variety is submarine-sized. Whether anyone thinks walnut shrimp with honey, pineapple and fruit mayonnaise ($12) might be palatable is not the point. Who could possibly endorse such an obscenely ambrosial approach? But it does work, somewhat like Hugh Jackman singing show tunes: You want to hate it but it's a syrupiness you can't turn away from. The Singapore chili prawns ($20) do have more machismo — if such a thing exists in a land where ginger is one shade past flamingo pink. Enlivened with heat but packed with flavor, it's a clear contender for a go-to dish with a cold Tsingtao or a frothy blue Hawaiian. 
As a finale, one could complain that the dessert options are too Americanized. Mango or chocolate mousse cakes and tempura-fried ice cream ($8) may be spectacles, but they're not new. Then again, only a self-imploding cake could surprise after such an extravaganza. And so, in the end, Jacky's falls to tradition — which isn't a bad thing. Other restaurants may dim the lights in an attempt to formalize a familiar cuisine, but Jacky's wants only to illuminate the festivity.


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