|All photos by Susan J. Young|
If clients have enjoyed the Mongolian Grill on Carnival ships, they’ll likely love Ji Ji Asian Kitchen on the new Carnival Sunshine. It’s one of a trio of dining and bar venues – Havana Bar and Cucina del Capitano being the others – that Carnival Cruise Lines (www.goccl.com) has added aft of the Lido Marketplace on the revitalized ship.
This new space takes the Mongolian Grill concept to the next level and beyond. This casual, but elegant restaurant is a stand-alone dining venue with its own seating, window views and Asian styling.
Stir-fry fans shouldn’t worry. They can still order their own customized stir fry at lunch without charge. That’s a plus for those not interested in spending any additional money on food during their cruise.
In the evening, though, Ji Ji transforms into a chic, full-service Asian dining venue, which many guests on our recent Carnival Sunshine cruise seemed to love. Cost is $12 per person. Reservations are recommended.
Ji Ji Asian Kitchen’s menu is creatively diverse. Clients may order dishes inspired by the regional cuisines of China, Mongolia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Setting the Mood
Guests entering for dinner are escorted past the open kitchen area en route to their table. It's fun to peruse the bowls of veggies and other ingredients or the chef creating a diner's entree with steam rising and sizzle in the air.
The best tables are along the windows, which deliver great sea views. That said, other tables within the main area of this restaurant also have good views. A few curtains help set the mood and separate Ji Ji from the Havana Bar seating.
On the night we dined, a few tables also were set for Ji Ji’s guests outside this main restaurant area and directly in view of the kitchen. While the culinary views are an added plus here, the space flows directly into seating for the Havana Bar too.
So it’s a bit more central, diners are a bit more on display, and the area is noisier. Yet this may be a good option for families to consider if they have active young children.
Ji Ji’s colorful table settings reflect a contemporary Asian style. Hanging light fixtures and Chinese prayer rolls provide themed exotic touches. Guests are provided with chopsticks and, of course, cutlery is available for those who prefer western utensils.
Overall, I felt the staff were exceedingly - and even more importantly, genuinely - friendly. The Asian servers had nametags from Turkistan and other Asian countries. That added a bit of authenticity to the evening.
The restaurant manager was elegantly attired with a headpiece accent. She was highly professional and made the rounds at each table asking about whether guests enjoyed the cuisine and whether everything was to our liking.
From my view, she conjured up movie imagery of high-class restaurants in 1920s-era Shanghai. Also helping set the mood in that regard was the drink menu.
Asian themed cocktails are $8.75 apiece. Among them, Ji Ji’s Signature Green Tea Martini is a mix of green tea, vodka, lemongrass syrup and fresh lemon juice.
I opted for the "Crazy Mango," a concoction of lemon-flavored vodka, mango purree, fresh lemon juice and Sprite. Sake Sangria is just what it sounds like – sake, orange-flavored liquor, pineapple juice, Sprite and fresh fruit.
Three beers, one each from China, Thailand and Japan, are also offered, as is the non-alcoholic "Lucky You Thai Iced Tea," made from black tea, sugar and milk.
A server then delivers a pre-dinner light snack on a thin elongated tray. Guests enjoy two types of tapioca crisps and various Indonesian sauces reflecting the cuisine of South Sumatra, West Sumatra, Java and Bali.
The yellow tapioca crisp is flavored with tumeric, while the other is a Wakame Togarashi dusted tapioca crisp. It’s a sensory experience to try all the different dips, such as Sambal Palembang, from South Sumatra, which is created with red chili, carrots, shallot and rice wine vinegar.
Really nice? The airy crisps are good to crunch on and the spices awaken your palette. But fortunately, they don’t take away your appetite before the food arrives.
The Order Process
Next the waitress comes to the table bearing dice. She informs the diners that the dishes are meant to be shared, that they recommend one or two appetizers for a couple, and two entrees to share.
The dice are to be thrown and the person who gets a “four” is tasked with writing down the singular order for the group (2, 4, 6 or whatever size), providing the number of each dish and handing to the waitress.
Personally, I could have gone without the dice game, which I felt was distracting and unnecessary. However, I recognize that families might appreciate the audience-participation diversion before dinner.
Another minor nit? The friendly server's informational talk about ordering focused on only one option - sharing - and left my dinner companion and I looking at each other. I love over-the-top hot, spicy food, while my friend does not. She’s also on a low-carb regimen and I’m not. Our tastes are just totally different.
So, as a could-be-improved point, I'd like to see the restaurant finetune the ordering talk just a bit. The server easily could tell guests that the portions are large so sharing is certainly “encouraged” but also state that if diners don't want to share, that's okay and they can order individually.
Our server quickly said "no problem" to our individual ordering request, so that wasn't an issue. But we had to ask, and it would just make the dining experience a bit more comfortable to lay out the choices up front. Sharing isn't something every diner or every group wants to do.
As an Asian cuisine lover, I was enticed by Ji Ji Asian Kitchen's highly diverse menu, which prods the guest’s sense of adventure. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," says the menu and so it begins.
Order a favorite or try something new; it's the diner's choice. Helping with the decision is a numbered map that shows the geographic places where the dishes originate: (1) Indonesia; (2) Nanjing, China; (3) Singapore; (4) Sichuan, China; (5) Guangdong and Fujian, China; (6) Phillipines; (7) Vietnam; (8) Peking (the former name of Beijing); and (9) Mongolia.
Appetizers to Delight
Seven different appetizers include Nanjing-style duck, whose origin dates back 1,400 years, along with slow-braised pork belly and soups such as tamarind & shrimp and chicken & cilantro root.
Curiously, when my order of the shrimp soup arrived, it looked like chicken soup. Alas, it was, and while they had a simple mix-up that was quickly remedied, there was one great advantage. I was able to sample both soups (after all, I did have to see if it was chicken or was the shrimp I ordered, right?).
That chicken soup was the best I’ve ever had – flavorful and exceedingly fragrant with corn, eggs, tomatoes, Chinese chives and oyster mushrooms. One just wanted to inhale, it was so lovely to smell. I actually hated sending it back.
My original order of tamarind & shrimp soup arrived minutes later and was piping hot as well. It brimmed with veggies and small shrimp and was very yummy.
Well known appetizer favorites like spring rolls get an interesting twist at Ji Ji’s. The spring rolls feature lemon marmalade, curry leaves, pink grapefruit and cilantro pearls.
Recommended are the pot stickers. These were delicately prepared, three on a plate, with several different sauces to try. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what all the sauces were – the server rattled them off – but sometimes it’s just good to dig in. All were very tasty.
The Main Event
Many diners on our night in the restaurant ordered the slow-braised Wagyu beef short rib with watermelon radish, burdock root, wasabi pearl and crisp potatoes. Comments seemed quite positive from the other tables around us.
Other entree choices include stewed pork served in a clay pot with wok-fried scallions, sesame, fresh spinach, pea shoots, and snap peas and Singapore chili shrimp, inspired by local street vendors and featuring a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
My friend ordered the orange beef, and said it was okay. I ordered my favorite, Kung Pao Chicken with Sichuan peppercorns, chilis and cashews. I also told the waitress I wanted it extra hot.
The kitchen obliged and the dish arrived with large chunks of chicken and many cashews and shallots. It met all my "added heat" expectations with extra peppercorns and chilis.
Rounding out Ji Ji’s nightly menu are various sides including noodles and rice dishes. I ordered jasmine Basmati rice, which I’d recommend for its taste and fragrance. My friend’s order of eggplant with mushrooms, soy and oyster sauce also looked yummy.
Sweets and Beyond
Three desserts are offered at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen. Rose crème brulee is made with ginger cream. Fried wonton is wrapped lychee fruit with tapioca bits and coconut milk.
Or, diners might order caramelized crepes with Calamansi citrus ice cream, nicely accented with a blackberry and raspberry.
Even if clients don't order dessert, the server will being a complimentary double-decker tray with fruit roll-ups and fortune cookies. It's the perfect ending to a lovely evening.
Dining at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen in the evening includes full table and bar service. The experience is a culinary adventure that touches all parts of Asia, depending what you order. Have a Chinese appetizer and a Mongolian entree. It's totally up to the diner.
Ji Ji Asian Kitchen's evening dining experience is a bargain from my perspective. That's particularly so given the excellent quality of the cooked-to-order dishes, friendly servers and soothing Asian aura. Alcoholic drinks are, as they are elsewhere, extra.
Carnival’s excellent Fahrenheit 555 restaurant is $35 per person, so for budget-conscious clients, Ji Ji at $12 is a great option for people who want a bit different, yet more affordable alternative dining experience.
Currently, the restaurant only operates on Carnival Sunshine; that ship is sailing this summer in the Mediterranean but will reposition to New Orleans, where it will begin year-round service in November.
If you’re onboard, consider Ji Ji Asian Kitchen. Overall, I loved this venue and can’t wait to book a reservation the next time I’m on Carnival Sunshine.