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The Frown Derby

Tower City's Hong Kong Jockey Club is off the pace.

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It must have seemed like a winning concept: a Napa Valley-Asian fusion restaurant in fashionable Tower City, offering trendy California cuisine in a contemporary atmosphere. But after six months of menu tinkering and repositioning, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has yet to leave the starting gate.

Instead, the restaurant seems to be trotting off in the direction of becoming just another Chinese restaurant, with an increased emphasis on dime-a-dozen entrees like Szechwan Chicken, Cashew Shrimp, and Moo Shu Pork. In fact, the current combination lunch-and-dinner menu lists seventeen of these Asian standards, but only eight "fusion" dishes, along with a mixed bag of appetizers, soups, salads, and sandwiches.

That's a shame, because the basic concept of East-meets-West cuisine is a good one and a notion that hasn't yet been done to death in the Cleveland area. But for whatever reason--its unfortunate location in a far-off corner of the concourse, customers' reluctance to try something new, or underlying problems in execution--the restaurant now seems unlikely to develop into a contender in the local dining derby.

A recent weekday lunch visit had us holding out hope. An appetizer of vegetarian Portobello Sushi was delectable. The four large nori-wrapped rolls were centered around a spear of marinated and grilled mushroom and a bit of crisp daikon radish, and served with traditional wasabi paste, soy sauce, and thin slices of pickled ginger.

A Kung Pao Pepper Steak sandwich was pretty good, too. Tender sirloin steak and an assortment of colorful sliced peppers had been wok-fried, bound in a light, flavorful stir-fry sauce, and piled into a toasted baguette. While the stir-fried meat and vegetables were delightful, the dry bread was a distraction. Things improved when I scraped the filling out of the hard baguette and enjoyed it on its own. The deep-fried strings of crisp white and sweet potato that accompanied the dish were a tasty addition, especially when I whisked them through the stir-fry sauce.

My eager-to-please server told me that none of the restaurant's small selection of desserts were housemade, but I opted to try a slice of Caramel Granny Apple Pie anyway. The wedge of dense, oversweetened apples and caramel might have been good if it had been served warm and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Instead, it arrived at the table icy cold and was worth neither its calories nor its $4.95 price tag.

If you want to be alone, try the Jockey Club on a Saturday night. When we showed up for a weekend visit at 7:30 p.m., we were the only folks in the place. The sound of the Brian Setzer Orchestra wailing at top volume seemed incongruous in the otherwise ghostly setting; fortunately, someone turned it down soon after we were seated.

Our waitress was a great saleswoman, giving us a quick rundown of the restaurant's fusion philosophy, reviewing the menu, describing dishes, and making suggestions. Still, her enthusiasm couldn't overcome our sense that things were not quite right in the kitchen that night.

Take our appetizers, for instance. Every one of them--Asian roll, pot stickers, and crab cake--came to the table less than lukewarm. If it had been a busy night, we would have figured that they had been hanging around in the kitchen while our waitress was occupied with other duties. But the appetizers arrived shortly after they were ordered, so the reason behind their too-cool-for-comfort temperatures remains a mystery.

The starters also suffered from strangely muted flavors. The pot stickers--five little fried dumplings that the menu said were filled with shrimp, scallops, and potato--had a nice, moist texture, but the flavor of the filling was completely unidentifiable: Seafood? Pork? There was no telling. A mild, slightly sweet sauce of roasted red pepper and basil accompanied the pot stickers and helped give them what little taste they had.

A long, slender Asian roll came on a bed of greens, accompanied by a sweet plum sauce and squiggles of an odd horseradish-flavored mayonnaise. The fried skin was light and crisp, and the filling of black rice and bits of carrot was pleasant enough, if somewhat bland. However, we never spotted the chicken or celery that was supposed to be part of the filling.

Strangest of all was the bland, bready crab cake, a large, flat pancake served on a pool of what seemed like sticky, unadulterated honey (the menu called it a "honey-ginger vinaigrette").

On the other hand, a cup of sweet-potato bisque, with ginger and toasted coconut, was very good, with a pronounced flavor and a thick, custardy texture. While even a bit too much sugar would have made it more like pie filling than soup, the kitchen showed admirable restraint in this instance.

Side salads are available with entrees for an extra charge. The large platefuls of torn romaine, red onion rings, chopped tomato, and shredded cucumber with a housemade Caesar-style dressing were nothing special, and, like the appetizers before them, they came to the table lukewarm. A basketful of packaged margarine and sorry, dried-out slices of French bread accompanied the greens. We didn't get much time to contemplate the bread and salads, though: Our entrees arrived moments later, and we were left scrambling to find a place for our salad plates after our meals were plopped down in front of us.

A grilled rib pork chop, topped with barbecue sauce and artfully surrounded by asparagus spears and wedges of roasted sweet potato, made a pretty picture. However, the bottled sauce soon oozed off the chewy chop and onto the asparagus, which had already been drizzled with a mild white sauce. The unintentional commingling of unremarkable sauces didn't improve either one, and the barbecue taste detracted from the delicate flavor of the asparagus. And while the roasted sweet potato wedges were light and naturally sweet, they were needlessly served on more of that thick honey. The overall effect was culinary chaos.

A large, skin-on fillet of farm-raised trout was also a disappointment. The dry, tasteless fish was served on a bed of vegetables described on the menu as "stir-fried Napa cabbage, with shiitake mushrooms and sesame-peanut sauce." However, the vegetables on the plate were a melange of fresh broccoli, peppers, and summer squash in a mild, clear sauce: not bad, but nothing like what we had been expecting.

Roasted Five-Spice Duck was better. The meaty half-duck had been dusted with five-spice powder (an aromatic blend of cinnamon, fennel, cloves, star anise, and pepper) and deeply roasted until the skin was dark and crisp, and the meat was bursting with flavor. Although the menu promised sun-dried-cherry-and-garlic mashed potatoes and bok choy to accompany the duck, what we got instead was that same melange of veggies that came with the trout and a scoop of delicate, mandarin-orange-spiked couscous.

Our final entree--spicy, stir-fried shrimp and soba noodles with bits of crunchy cucumber--appeared to owe little to California cooking. Still, the dish was enjoyable, with plenty of perfectly done, fresh-tasting shrimp, a moderately spicy brown stir-fry sauce, and tender noodles, all piled into a large, shallow bowl and topped with both raw and toasted sesame seeds.

The restaurant has a full bar and offers a selection of moderately priced wines from familiar west-coast wineries like Rodney Strong, Fetzer, and Beaulieu Vineyards. We chose a $23 bottle of a 1997 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend (retail: $10) and found it better suited for casual quaffing in a hot tub than enjoying with a meal.

This time, we wisely skipped desserts--three different types of commercial cheesecake--and contented ourselves with coffee. Only two of us received little plastic tubs of cream with our coffee, though, and only one of us got a spoon. On the bright side, after sharing the creamer and passing the communal spoon around the table like blood brothers smoking a peace pipe, we couldn't help but think of the meal as a bonding experience.

Any restaurant in the Hong Kong Jockey Club's position--with big guns like Morton's of Chicago, the Hard Rock Cafe, and the Ritz-Carlton's Riverview Room on one side of them and cheap-and-easy eats from the Tower City food court on the other--needs a strong culinary identity and noteworthy food in order to compete successfully.

Co-owner James Lin says he recognizes that fact. He plans to continue educating his staff and customers on the finer points of fusion cuisine and eventually to move the restaurant toward a purer fusion menu. As it stands now, though, the Hong Kong Jockey Club lacks both fine food and a defined personality. At this pace, the restaurant seems destined to enter the record books as just another also-ran.

Hong Kong Jockey Club, 230 Huron Road (inside Tower City Center), Cleveland. 216-523-1346.

Portobello Sushi $4.95

Asian Roll $2.50

Pot Stickers $5.95

Crab Cakes $6.95

Sweet Potato Bisque $2.50

Kung Pao Pepper Steak Sandwich $6.50

House Salad $2.50

Farm-Raised Trout $10.95

Grilled Pork Chop $12.95

Roasted Five-Spice Duck $13.95

Shrimp and Soba Noodles $12.95

Caramel Granny Apple Pie $4.

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