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Photograph by Pete Shea
Run Amok : Jia Tella's amok, a concoction of catfish or chicken with lemon grass, coconut milk and collard greens, comes wrapped in a banana leaf.

Asian Imagination

Won over by casual exotica at Jia Tella's in Scotts Valley.

By Christina Waters

Yes, we did order way too much food. But who could blame us? Lively, fresh and loaded with flavor contrasts, Jia Tella's vibrant Cambodian cuisine provides one-stop sensory bombardment. We joined Mario and Francesca last week for a dive into the center of this popular new Scotts Valley restaurant, where the casual format doesn't detract one bit from lingering long over spice-laden dishes.

The appealing menu is listed in bright signage over the main counter. A small wine bar adjoins the spot where we made our selections and paid for our orders. Many of the main dishes are available in small ($8.95) as well as large ($12.95) sizes--and we decided to opt for bounty. Then we grabbed a table for four in the corner and watched the place fill up as our bottle of chilled Morgan Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95) arrived along with four large goblets.

Next came large (maybe a bit too large) covered tureens of rice--both white and brown--and our soup order. A delicate, tangy broth laced with tomatoes, pineapple, celery and prawns sounds all over the culinary map, but it wasn't ($8.95). Almost floral in its perfumed flavor notes, it proved a seductive opener, especially paired with a platter of four freshly made spring rolls ($4.50). The secret here is mintlike basil, which, joined with vermicelli noodles, long microribbons of bean sprouts, cucumber and shrimp, gave our taste buds a true steeping in the light, bright outlook of Cambodian cuisine. The ancient and the recent mix playfully in this culinary style--which is why one of the most traditional lemon-grass-scented dishes on the menu, amok, arrives in a wittily folded banana leaf.

The unusual and delicate soup--displaying Cambodian dedication to sweet and sour, spicy and salty--set the tone. As each entree was brought to the table, we all added new toppings to our rice. The green papaya salad, always one of my favorites from this region, was bright and fresh ($9.95). A huge mound of palest green shredded papaya was laced with carrots, dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and tomatoes. Yes, it seems odd that a New World staple might show up in Southeast Asia, but there's no point in arguing with sensory success. I splashed on some fiery chile sauce and enjoyed the supersonic effect. The heat was beautifully offset by the ripe, round, often sweet flavors of the recipe. Spicy basil chicken--my favorite of the evening--arrived in a blaze of flavor ($12.95). Red chilies, ginger and garlic bumped up the intensity of Thai basil and minced chicken. But I still enjoyed making the dish even spicier, which then required a few more sips of the white wine. You know how it goes.

Another hit of the evening was a main dish of stir-fried green beans, accompanied by beef, pork, chicken, tofu or shrimp. We all agreed on pork--a solid winner. The pole beans (unfortunately, not the expected Chinese long beans) were bathed in a tamarind sauce that was absolutely brilliant. Pork adores tamarind, so the entire dish made flavor alchemy. I wasn't wild about the monotone impression of our tamarind noodle entree, which seemed to me far too soft and noodly, with not enough tamarind flavor. But my dinner partners disagreed, and we all found ourselves inhaling almost everything from the sea of plates in front of us.

Other than the fact that we were all stuffed within an hour, another "issue" with ordering so many different dishes was the palate confusion--especially with dishes whose individual identities tend to blur into a mono-spice experience. But dessert definitely made a solid statement. Full of savory and spicy and garlicky entrees, the four of us sampled a single dessert, the specialty mango sticky rice topped with coconut milk ($6.95). I absolutely love this non-Western juxtaposition of warm rice, ripe fruit and rich coconut milk. The other three found the combination a bit too strange, but their response allowed me to take over and enjoy this creamy dessert to my heart's content.

Jia Tella's

Address: 18 Victor Square #D, Scotts Valley Junction, Scotts Valley

Phone: 831.438.5005

Hours: Open 11am-9pm Sun-Thu, until 10pm Fri-Sat

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