On my first visit to Yumcha, a new Chinese restaurant in the West Village, I sat at the counter. Five cooks were working at breakneck speed in the open kitchen-the scene was almost comic, like a movie on fast-forward. As I watched the cooks at work, a middle-aged man in an open-necked shirt and his female companion slid into the chairs next to me and ordered martinis.
“How do you feel about peanuts, nutrition-wise?” he asked his date by way of starting up a conversation.
A tanned woman with slicked-back blond hair and pumped-up arms set off by a sleeveless green T-shirt, she made a reply I couldn’t quite hear.
The sous chef in front of us, wearing white rubber gloves, was vigorously tossing noodles in a peanut sauce (25 percent protein, 16 carbohydrate, plus calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins B6 and E); he added a dollop of lemon sorbet to each bowl before sliding them across the counter to my neighbors. “A gift from the chef,” he said.
Just then, a busboy appeared with a narrow plastic tray containing toasted cashews, sugar snap peas and crystallized ginger and emptied them on top of each bowl. Not your usual cold sesame noodles.
Nothing about the food at Yumcha is usual, from the greaseless, crunchy spring rolls stuffed with pork, shrimp, jicama and black fungus mushrooms, served with a mustard dipping sauce, to the fried rice that shares a fourth of its bowl with a curry-a pineapple curry foam.
Yumcha is the most interesting Chinese restaurant to come along since Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s 66 opened in Tribeca a couple of years ago. For New Yorkers raised on Chinese take-out-”I’ll have a No. 6, a 10, a 48 and two orders of rice to go”-or meals in the raucous feeding halls of Chinatown, with their 200-dish menus, the cuisine here will come as a revelation.
Angelo Sosa was formerly executive chef at Jean-Georges and Spice Market. His partners are Jin R, a restaurateur from Beijing, and owner Quentin Dante.
Their restaurant is elegant and stylish: Ming Dynasty meets the Bauhaus in the glossy black-and-red dining room, which was designed by Glen Coben. The black wood tables are set for four; deuces eat at the bar or the kitchen counter. The room is hung with square lanterns and has picture windows on two sides (the red-and-gold bathroom is magnificent, with a curved wall painted with dragons). All hard surfaces, it’s very loud; a carpet on the floor would help to soften the noise.
Mr. Sosa calls his food “modern haute Chinese.” (He’s the tall, lanky one with trendily spiked black hair, who you can see darting about the kitchen and fixing up the cooks’ plates like an art teacher with his students’ paintings.) He spent a month doing research in Hong Kong for his dishes, which are subtly spiced and original. A delicate, peekytoe crab salad with cilantro and scallions gets a note of astringency from fermented rice-wine vinaigrette and an underlying creaminess from an egg-white cardomon custard. Pan-fried frogs’ legs are coated with a chili mayonnaise. You eat one and then take a sip from a shot glass of pineapple consommé, made from fresh pineapple juice drained through cheesecloth, to cut the heat. Mussels from Nova Scotia, a trifle bland, are sprinkled with garlic, Thai basil and cilantro, and cooked in a broth made with black beans and XO sauce.
Tender pieces of chicken smoked in oolong and green tea with star anise are served with a tart condiment made from Chinese preserved plums. Chilled grilled tofu comes in an aromatic Riesling broth with slivers of fried okra, baby asparagus, leeks and whole ramps, their stringy ends fried until crisp. The tofu could be silkier, but the vegetables-very fresh and seasonal-are superb.
Unlike most Chinese restaurants, the food here isn’t served family style (but you’ll want to taste everyone else’s dishes anyway). Slow-baked Atlantic halibut is moist under a tapenade of Chinese sausage and fermented black beans, with the sausage broth poured tableside. Ginger-lacquered veal cheeks, braised in soy sauce with ginger, chilies and pineapple, come in a small clay pot on a salad of salted bean sprouts and sour apple-it’s a lovely combination. Medallions of Szechwan-dusted beef tenderloin with Shanghai shoots (a variety of bok choy) are served on a bed of spicy eggplant with mint.
Desserts are unabashedly Western, with an occasional Chinese spice thrown in. I loved the strawberry sorbet, which has an underlying kick of Szechwan pepper, and the chocolate, which has the slightest hint of Chinese cinnamon. Airy beignets arrive with a dipping sauce made from condensed milk fondue, and a rich peanut-butter cheesecake with chocolate cracklings is served in a glass set on a plate at a jaunty 45-degree angle. The spiced Asian pear-served on a creamy, sticky rice pudding-is also first-rate.
The name Yumcha means “Drink Tea.” Coincidently, a similarly named cutting-edge restaurant has just opened in London, this one called Yauatcha, (a different spelling of the same word) an $8 million venture in a new Richard Rogers building in Soho serving dim sum. Teas are blended by Tea Master Jin R and imported directly from her Green T house in Beijing. They have fanciful names like Forever Spring, High Mountain Wulong and Cloudy Flower Mood, and they make a wonderful finale to Yumcha’s exciting new cuisine.