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Outdoor signage at China Gourmet in Hyde Park on Erie Avenue

The jazz genre may be the most egalitarian of all art forms. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the rise of Benny Goodman, an American bandleader known worldwide as the King of Swing. With clarinet at his lips and an integrated band featuring black musicians behind him, this son of Jewish immigrants rose to the top of the jazz world in the 1930s and 1940s. Those decades represented an era of strident, systemic, often murderously violent racial bigotry and antisemitism here and abroad. Goodman was living proof that the world of jazz was far more tolerant than the social environment of the time.

So, for Cincinnati’s Jewish community, Jazz may have an appeal beyond its aesthetic value. And for Jewish diners-out, both appeals may be satisfied by a trip to China Gourmet on Thursdays between 6 and 8 p.m. That’s when this venerable Chinese restaurant features performances by players from the Jazz Society of Cincinnati. The group offers a program featuring high school students who play at local restaurants for the experience of doing so in front of a live audience. And before you think of a 14-year-old’s scratchy, grating performance on a violin, ala Jack Benny, think again, says Matthew Loomis, owner/operator of China Gourmet.

“These kids are good! Usually it’s one person (who performs), and often it will be a guitar, but background music, not loud or overpowering at all. One (of the performers) is a girl named Sophia. She’s played here several times. She plays the bass (actually, the double bass, big brother of the cello) and sings. She’s amazing! She does a lot of scat, real soft, not in your face. People who know say this girl is going to be famous. She’s that good,” Loomis stated.

Also among participants is Jim Hart, music professor at Xavier University. He is classically trained, plays the piano, composes, and arranges music, and he too offers quality compositions to dine by. So, all that jazz!

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New to the menu are Szechuan sauced chicken wings

Meanwhile, China Gourmet has gone through a menu renovation in which some ten entrée dishes have been added as others have been removed. One of the most popular of the new items is the steak with egg fried rice, according to Loomis. “This dish is like having a steak dinner and a fried rice entrée all in one. We season the steak and then sear it in the wok, just to get a nice sear on it — not cook it through. Then we take it out and start on the rest of the dish. We put in the vegetables and get them (cooked) where we want. Then the sauce, get it where we want. And then we mix it all together with the steak and fried rice and the sauce,” he said, adding that the new steak fried rice dish has been a huge seller for China Gourmet for several months now. Because the steak is cooked independent of the other ingredients, it can be served to order, rare, medium, or well.  

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The douban sauced noodle dish with chicken

Another dish that garners acclaim from diners is the douban noodle dish piled with the protein of your choice, including steak or chicken for kosher style diners.  For the uninitiated, douban sauce is made of spicy chili bean paste. At China Gourmet, the kitchen makes its own douban sauce, adding garlic to the classic Chinese recipe. The noodles for this entrée are Japanese udon, which are thick flour-based noodles, perhaps three times the thickness of a strand of spaghetti. A variety of Chinese veggies are added to the dish, including peapods, water chestnuts, baby corn and carrots. The noodles absorb the tasty, tangy sauce, which also coats the chicken or steak and the vegetables. “Our diners love this dish,” Loomis stated, adding that the beef and chicken versions are the most popular. 

Speaking of most popular, Loomis said that his kitchen is on the cusp of walleye season, which returns every year when summer temperatures begin to cool on northern lakes. As the catch on the Great Lakes increases, restaurants may offer the fish on a regular basis. China Gourmet prepares walleye steamed or pan seared, according to the patron’s preference. The fish is served with a black bean and garlic sauce, or a ginger and scallion sauce. Both are winners in Loomis’ book, saying that some of his longtime patrons patiently wait for the walleye to arrive each season. He expects this year’s season to begin around October 1st.  

See you at China Gourmet!

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