When dapper Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang stealthily debuted Café China in 2011, it held a singularity on the spectrum of Szechuan restaurants. Neither gilded midtown warhorse, outer-borough shanty nor nouveau fusion trendsetter, the elegant spot earned a Michelin star for its boho style and fresh renditions of classic dishes.
Like its older sibling, China Blue feels fashionable, but not overdressed in its 1930s decor. Wang and Zhang have switched from Café China’s chili-spiked Szechuan to the much tamer flavors of Shanghai for their sophomore effort, but they’ve retained their trademark aesthetic.
The high-ceilinged, teal-swabbed dining room is unlike the city’s other exemplars of the regional cuisine (Joe’s Shanghai, Shanghai Cafe Deluxe), showcasing antique lamps, worn books and old typewriters like Art Deco calling cards. Young waiters whisk delicate, crab-rich soup dumplings ($10) to tables, while smartly dressed couples sip classic cocktails from etched-glass coupes.
Where Café China relies on the one-two punch of chilies and Szechuan peppercorns, China Blue offers subtler interplays among salty, smoky and sweet. Slices of cold poached chicken ($12) go on a 24-hour bender, their soft, “drunken” flesh sloshing in a heady marinade of sweet rice wine and salty broth. Firm shreds of tofu, chicken and cured Chinese ham ($18) soak up the flavors of a brackish, smoky pork stock.
The delicate sweetness of Shanghainese cuisine emerges in fried slivers of Asian swamp eel ($14), crunchy and saucy like a fisherman’s take on General Tso’s. Gelatinous dongpo pork belly ($19) is poached, soaked in rock candy and soy, and steamed; a bowtied waiter tucks it into fluffy steamed buns tableside.
Scallion pancakes ($10) nearly always taste like an afterthought, but here the ubiquitous snoozers are rendered airy, greaseless and crisp. China Blue doesn’t blow up tired paradigms, just makes a few subtle nips and tucks to the form, yet it’s enough to make a meal here feel entirely refreshing.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Meal highlights: Crab soup dumplings, scallion pancakes, drunken chicken, crispy eel, shredded bean curd, dongpo pork
Behind the bar: Although not a specialty of the mainland, the classic-style cocktails are surprisingly competent.
Vibe: Cordoned off by the Holland Tunnel in Tribeca’s hinterlands, China Blue feels more like a hidden gem than a well-worn scene.
Cocktail chatter: Wang designed both Café China and China Blue, procuring much of the decor at NYC flea markets.
Soundcheck: Spacious and quiet, it’s the polar opposite of downtown Shanghai.
By Daniel S. Meyer