There are two flights of brightly lit steps leading down to Chinoiserie, then three black invisible ones at the bottom. I nearly went flying–as, I imagine, most people do, providing many an entertaining moment for the staff standing by the desk at the entrance. It’s a fitting metaphor for what awaits you in this new, wildly popular restaurant in the basement of the Hotel Giraffe. It belongs in a movie by Jacques Tati.
“Tempered with cultural overtones, Chinoiserie evokes the playfulness of classical ‘Chinoiserie’ as only the French would know it and the British adore to this day!” says the press release. I always thought “chinoiserie” meant the dreaded blue china that Oscar Wilde found so hard to live up to, but there is not a willow pattern in sight here. The dining room is further described as a “Neo-Buddhist space.” To me, it looks like a Shanghai nightclub, very dark and very red, divided by pillars and hung with beautiful, drum-shaped red silk lampshades. The cement tables have small, illuminated pools in the center in which a candle and rose petals float. You have to climb over something–it’s too dark to see what–to get into the chairs along the wall, which are small and awkwardly designed. Those who sit facing in become mesmerized by the sheets of water pouring noisily down the wall behind lighted panels. There is a small, crowded bar on the right behind a curtain, through which waft clouds of cigarette smoke, and the buzzing disco music gets progressively louder as the evening goes on.
Neo-Buddhist or not, Chinoiserie is raucous even by the current standard for noisy restaurants. “It’s the perfect place to bring someone you’re breaking up with and don’t want to talk to,” yelled my companion across the table. He suggested we use our cell phones instead of trying to shout. We whipped them out and dialed, but even that failed because we were under ground.
The waitress set down a bowl of fried wonton skins with duck sauce, a sort of Chinese answer to chips and salsa, and took orders for cocktails. When the sauvignon blanc arrived (one of the house wines, which are sold by the quarter, half and full carafe), it was room temperature. “That’s because it’s on tap,” she sweetly explained. “But if you’d like a chilled white wine, I can exchange it for the pinot grigio or the chardonnay, which are poured from the bottle.”
My companion was highly amused. “That will be the next new thing,” he said, “going into a restaurant and asking, ‘What wine do you have on tap?'”
Chinoiserie was opened by Abraham Merchant with chef Marc Murphy, who was last at Mr. Merchant’s La Fourchette and, before that, Cellar in the Sky. I had loved Mr. Murphy’s food at La Fourchette, an expensive French restaurant on the Upper East Side that failed despite good reviews because it was too fancy for the neighborhood. His combinations were interesting without being far-fetched, and his sauces were great. Now he’s attempting a fusion of French and Chinese cooking at Chinoiserie, where practically no item on the menu is over 20 bucks. When you read it you start to wonder, what is this talented chef thinking of? Onion tart with fried dried shrimp? Seafood spring rolls with tarragon béchamel? Perhaps they go nicely with the white wine on tap (or maybe something else from the list of bizarre cocktails, like cinnamon schnapps with Calvados).
But more than the peculiar combinations, it’s the blandness of the food that is so surprising. Fried oysters with ginger creamed spinach sounded good, but they were lackluster and boring. Porcini dumplings had the texture of Pillsbury dough, served on soggy grilled Chinese eggplant. Where was the spice in the spicy Szechuan crab and cod cake? I couldn’t discern it, and the cake was mushy to boot. The tuna tartare was the best first course, tasting faintly of curry and served with fried ginger and a sweet-potato salad. But the lamb spring rolls were, as my companion put it, pigs-in-a-blanket made with lamb. Pickled mackerel was like a wet sponge. “If I were Scott on his polar expedition, I suppose I would be thankful for this,” my companion said after I offered him a bite. “I imagine it gets its particular texture by being aged for six months in an igloo.”
“Could we get a knife and fork?” I asked the busboy when our main courses arrived. A couple of minutes later, he returned. He handed me the knife–and gave the fork to my companion. Tati would have been thrilled.
The worst dish on the menu was the petit salé of pork belly, which arrived in a small, cast-iron skillet swimming with fat and pork debris. I could not eat it. We were unable to discern any of the advertised tamarind essence in the greasy, lukewarm lamb navarin. It was so overcooked that when a friend picked up a forkful, it literally disintegrated, falling with a splash into the little pool. “I guess the pool’s there for a reason,” she said.
Rabbit “à la moutarde Chinoise,” served in a white oval casserole, looked and tasted like an airline meal. The noodles, at least, were soft and warm, which is usually the most you can say about airline food. We fared better with the five-pepper-crusted sirloin, which was juicy yet rather tough with good, beefy flavor. (At $23, it’s the most expensive item on the menu.) The accompanying slivers of pommes allumettes did nothing for it; French fries would have been great.
Desserts included a tarte Tatin made with unripe mango in a soggy, malleable tart shell, and a strange, cold crêpe filled with red bean paste. But the trio of crèmes brûlées was very pleasant, and I also liked the molten chocolate cake, served with a terrific toasted-coconut ice cream.
So what has happened here? Is Chinoiserie just a cynical manipulation, a machine to make money off young office workers on dates? For these are the same people who pack places like Avalon down the block, putting away green-tea martinis or champagne mixed with ginger liqueur and having a great time.
“It’s a place for people who don’t give a damn where they are as long as they’re with people they want to sleep with,” said my companion. “They’d drink lighter fluid in a gas station just as happily.”
After dinner, our waitress, who was exceedingly nice, brought us fortune cookies. “There’s a prize in some of them,” she said.
We cracked open the cookies and took turns holding the fortunes up to the candle to read them.
“Did you win anything?” she asked. “The prize is a free dinner.”
We were in luck! Nobody had won.
Hotel Giraffe, 365 Park Avenue South at 26th Street
Dress: Young business
Noise level: High
Wine list: Peremptory
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $14 to $23
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor