Ever since my son was old enough to bang on a glass with a pair of chopsticks, I’ve been going for dim sum in Chinatown, a few blocks away from where I live. Now, still close to home 17 years later, eating oysters deep-fried in fortune-cookie-shaped wontons and fabulous green dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and corn, I observed the youngest customer in the new Chinatown Brasserie. He was lying in a red stroller that exactly matched the color of the silk lanterns hanging above him, wiggling his tiny, pink bare feet.
John McDonald and Josh Pickard, the creators of Lure and Lever House, have transformed the space that used to be Time Café on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Street into a glamorous, bustling Chinese answer to Balthazar. The restaurant, designed by architect William T. Georgis, is on two levels, with a lounge below where koi swim in a mirrored pool. The red-and-black dining room is decorated with silk tapestries and canopies, antique mirrors and damask curtains in vivid hues of orange, turquoise and green. A line of black leather banquettes, modeled after Chinese imperial beds, separates the dining room from the black granite bar. Paintings by Robert Kushner cover the west wall.
The menu is not of mind-boggling Chinatown length and variety, but instead offers a conservative selection of regional Chinese dishes, including dim sum, barbecue and recognizable classics such as Peking duck, General Tso’s chicken and crispy orange beef. Chef Tyson Wong Ophaso, born in Thailand but ethnically Chinese, trained under Claude Troisgros and worked at Le Cirque, Lutèce, La Cote Basque and Lotus. The dim sum chef, Joseph Ng, trained in Hong Kong and worked in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. He reputedly has over 1,000 varieties in his repertoire and serves around 40 on weekends. So far, though, the chefs seem to be playing it safe: no chicken feet, lungs or tripe.
The staff is friendly and generally efficient, but my first visit felt like a Monty Python skit.
“Peking duck is probably too much for two,” I said, looking at the menu (which lists it for $48). “Do you have it in half orders?”
“Why, then it would be only half a duck!” replied the server (I don’t wish to get anyone in trouble, thus the politically correct, non-gender-specific term). “Ha, ha! Just a joke!”
After taking down our order, minus any duck, the server disappeared and returned after a couple of minutes. “I put in your order ….” The server’s voice trailed away uncertainly. “You ordered a crispy orange beef and … ?” A longer pause followed. “Well, anyway,” said the server, coming back to earth at last and wrapping up the conversation, “I put in your order.”
The server returned a short time later. “This is the beef with broccoli.” We stared down at beef topped with orange peel. “And this is the noodles.” We looked at a silver bowl filled with chunks of fried fish. A busboy set down an oval platter. “Wait!” cried the server. “There are the noodles! Look!” Geronimo! There they were indeed: a few triumphant strands, poking out from underneath a pile of shellfish.
The individual components of this dish, which was made with a pancake of fried egg noodles topped with mussels, diver scallops, shrimp, cauliflower florets, scallions, quartered tomatoes and Thai basil in chicken stock, were very good and fresh. But what were they doing together? The combination of ingredients made no sense.
The main courses proved uneven over several visits. The fish our server had mistaken for noodles was encased in a soggy batter. Lobster with ginger and scallions, cut in chunks and served in the shell, was messy to eat and not worth $42. But barbecue pork tenderloin with a thin, crackling skin was excellent, and the crispy soft-shell crabs were the best I’ve ever tasted, served with four dipping sauces. And the shrimp were perfectly cooked, coated with a velvety black-bean sauce thickened with egg.
Even those dishes normally familiar to New Yorkers in the context of a cardboard container were beautifully executed. Crispy orange beef was pleasantly chewy and spicy. General Tso’s chicken, mysteriously named for a 19th-century war hero, was also very good, laced with scallions and whole dried chilies that permeated the dish with a warm, spicy glow.
As for the moo shoo pork, when the dome was lifted from the silver pedestal dish, what we saw looked like a brain. Actually, it was a cap made of omelet, under which was a nest of tender pork with shiitake mushrooms and greens, to be spooned into delicate mandarin pancakes. A triumph.
Mr. Ng’s dim sum, with thin, silky wonton wrappers, are wonderful, from the subtly peppery wonton soup, the snow-pea leaf and shrimp dumplings, turnip cake and crisp pork pot stickers, to the Shanghai-style soup dumplings with broth inside, topped with flying-fish roe. The soup dumplings are infinitely better than the ones I’ve had at the overrated Joe’s Shanghai.
Desserts included a terrific, gooey warm chocolate cake that was more like a pudding, served with candied orange, and an almond cake with roast peach and raspberry mousse. The mousse-like cheesecake with peaches and blueberries was also terrific, as was rhubarb on a delicate custard topped with a crunch of Chinese celery.
Chocolate fortune cookies arrive at the end of the meal. My fortune added another surreal and comic note: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it. Groucho Marx.”
Actually, I did have wonderful evenings at Chinatown Brasserie, once I got over the size of the check—twice the price of Chinatown.
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