Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Chop, Chop! Shanghai Chef

Revives Lost Art of Cutting

Lozoo means “green tea” in Mandarin, but more people at Lozoo, on Houston Street, seem to be guzzling the house cocktail, which is bright blue. The group at the table next to mine one evening had ordered four. One of the diners, a young Italian dressed in black, grinned as he lifted his glass. “After a couple of these it’s like, ‘Are my legs on my body or what?'”

But don’t be deceived by Lozoo’s club-like atmosphere. Yes, it has a long, dark bar and a candlelit lounge where trays of lichi bellinis in tall glasses and luscious-looking pale green drinks are delivered all night long to the young, attractive crowd packed along the black banquettes. But this restaurant is serious about its food, Shanghai cuisine the likes of which you’ve never seen in Chinatown.

The idea for the restaurant came about when co-owner Greg Kan, a Chinese-American businessman, invited Li Ping (formerly of Kelley & Ping, Obeca Li and Kin Khao) to dine at his grandmother’s house in Shanghai. Ms. Ping was so impressed by the cooking of the grandmother’s master chef, Wang Yong Gen, that she invited him to open a restaurant in New York. But he had problems getting a visa. “It was a conundrum,” said Mr. Kan. “The U.S. government wanted to know what makes him special. But there are no star chefs in China; all the great food is in private houses. He even cooked for Clinton, but the immigration department wanted to see things that don’t exist, like magazine articles and reviews.” So while the application was pending, Mr. Kan flew the restaurant’s future staff to Shanghai to train with Mr. Wang in his grandmother’s kitchen. And, five months ago, he went ahead with the opening of the restaurant, without the chef.

Now, at long last, Mr. Wang has made it to Lozoo’s kitchen. The menu hasn’t changed since I made my first visits back in January, but dishes have been refined and there are new daily specials. One of the first things I was struck by at Lozoo was the meticulous-even obsessive-way the ingredients were cut, and the enormous difference this makes to the taste of a dish. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Kan’s family (which included a governor of Manchuria, a banker and a well-known poet) fled China. Their chef, Mr. Wang, was sent to a city where he wasn’t allowed to cook. Instead, he spent two years specializing in cutting. “It was a lost art,” said Mr. Kan. “It’s a kind of precision you don’t see any more in China. Most people associate this kind of meticulous work with Japan. But, in fact, China and Japan have shared this refinement for centuries.”

Mr. Wang’s skill is greatly in evidence in his cooking: the four squares of silky tofu, for example, that are stuffed with dried shredded scallops. Two are topped with butterflied shrimp, two with sea bass. They are covered with a delicate creamy sauce made with Shaoxing wine and sprinkled with a confetti of red and green peppers cut into tiny, tiny squares. It must have taken hours to cut those squares, but anything larger would have overwhelmed the dish. The barbecued sirloin is not a slab of steak, but a mound of finely hacked beef. It’s served on shredded tofu seasoned with cilantro and sesame oil that does the work of fries. The smooth, white squid has been nicked with a knife into feathers, making it extremely tender and silken, and it comes with a powerful soy-based sauce. Sea bass is minced; you wrap it with pine nuts and pieces of citrussy pomelo into iceberg lettuce leaves and eat it like a summer roll.

The chef loves to play games with textures, cutting different things into exactly the same shape and size, leaving you to guess what you’re eating. Caramelized strips of eggplant are cooked in stock with garlic, chilis and a mystery substance (it’s chewy sticks of glutinous rice), then garnished with long strips of scallion cut like chives. The eggplant is soft, the rice sticks

almost like chewing gum, but pleasantly so. Eel is done two ways. It’s shredded and fried crispy in a vinegary batter, and shares the plate with soft, slivered pieces of the fish mixed with slivers of snow peas.

The former tenant of Lozoo’s premises was a health-food store, and the ghost of tofu still haunts the place: It even comes with snails, one of the best dishes on the menu. The snails are sautéed with garlic and chives, wrapped in a tofu skin and deep-fried. The skin is as crisp and light as phyllo dough (you’d never guess it was tofu), and the snails are as plump and garlicky as the ones you’d find in the best French bistro.

The chicken smoked over green tea leaves is extraordinary. The pervasive smokiness makes the meat, which is moist and tender, taste incredibly rich. (It’s not.) Also wonderful is a new dish that arrived with the chef, a play on the Peking duck with pancakes we know from Chinatown. But instead of being served in chunks, the duck is minced and piled in a lustrous heap with fried glass noodles, coriander and shredded scallions. Soft pancakes and a bamboo cup of hoisin sauce are served on the side.

I hope the ribs at Lozoo have improved since I first tasted them (they were dull and dry) and I hope the crabmeat-which has the texture of baby food in a whipped egg-white cloud-is less bland. I wasn’t much impressed by the green tea shrimp I had at the beginning of the year, but the crunchy butterflied shrimp in a spicy ginger sauce, which also arrived with the new chef, are great. So too are the warm noodles, topped with a sweet and spicy meat sauce and surrounded by cucumber matchsticks, scallions and bean sprouts.

Lozoo serves exciting food with a setting to match. The dining room, which is in back of the restaurant, has a minimal, sleek, black-and-white décor. Strips of recessed lighting cast a soft glow over the room, and lights also peek through the wainscoting, which is made of a tightly packed gray acoustical foam. There’s a skylight and a courtyard that will open when the weather gets warmer. When you turn on the faucet in the bathroom, a waterfall shoots down the metal sides of a communal sink.

The sound level in the dining room is low, with a background of gently pulsing music that, in my ignorance, I thought was Japanese techno music. My teenage son set me straight: “It’s garage music. That means you can rap to it. If you can’t, it’s techno.”

And there you have it.

Lozoo’s Western desserts are terrific. They include a dark chocolate soufflé served in a demitasse with white and dark chocolate mousse, and a chocolate walnut cake that’s as over-the-top as any I’ve tasted and supplies-in one enormous helping-the adult minimum weekly requirement of chocolate. But my favorite is the crêpes, layered in a pile with brandied whipped cream between each one. The pile is sliced in a wedge and served on a bright splash of red strawberry sauce. It’s the kind of subtlety that epitomizes the food at Lozoo, and makes this place a find.