Technically, 2006 is the Chinese year of the dog. But I think it should be declared the year of the over-the-top Chinese joint. Several new high-profile Sinocentric eateries have already garnered attention—not necessarily praise—for transforming a famously inexpensive cuisine into a platform for glamorous spectacle: Philippe, Mr. Chow Tribeca, Buddakan and Buddha Bar essentially set the stage for Chinatown Brasserie, a restaurant that John McDonald and Joshua Pickard (of Lever House and Lure) spent $6 million to build inside the former Time Café space.
While one would expect this trend to produce terrific modern fusion fare—many sexy, oversize Japanese restaurants played with Latin cuisine a few years ago—the new breed of Chinese food seems to follow old recipes. Many of the menu options at Chinatown Brasserie could appear at some spot with Wok or Empire in its name or on a menu furtively slipped under your door, except that the prices run about 50 percent higher (beef with broccoli costs $18—need we say more?). Orange beef, pork lo mein and yes, even General Tso’s chicken are all available, prepared largely as you’ve seen them before.
So what’s the draw? Giant shimmering decor is certainly part of it: Dark brocade curtains, wooden room dividers and red-and-yellow silk lanterns greet you upstairs, while a downstairs lounge, formerly the bar and music venue Fez, shoots for tiki cool with the help of a koi pond and low-to-the-ground lounge chairs. Still, the environment seems downright tame compared with architectural amusement parks like Buddakan and Buddha Bar, or the celebrity “wow” factor of the otherwise insipid Mr. Chow.
Is it about celebrity chefs? Not so much, though Tyson Wong Ophaso has worked at Le Cirque, Lutèce, La Cote Basque, Nong and Lotus. What you’re paying for is quality ingredients. Finally, you can taste the pungently sour pork in a dish like dried string beans with pork, and not just minced pork crumbs. Pepper beef tastes like steak rather than some beef imposter. And the panfried noodles, which resembled a bird’s nest with bits of seafood, proffered enormous sweet shrimp and scallops so fresh they could have popped up in a frutti di mare at Esca.
While the menu lists fried egg rolls, wok-fried noodles and fried rice (lots of fried stuff actually), this brasserie specializes in dim sum. They’ve even hired a dedicated chef, Joe Ng, to oversee the little treats. And in these dishes, the grade-A ingredients prove more discernible than ever: The shrimp-and-snow-pea dumplings practically snap with freshness, and the seafood in the dumplings holds its own with the XO sauce. The only exception was the soup dumplings, which were no better than those at Joe’s Shanghai or Grand Sichuan—just twice as costly.
Price is a recurring concern. The dim sum can easily run $50 a person, and as with pizza, I’m not sure textbook Chinese food ever merits such elevated fees. The signature dish, $48 Peking duck, was served with little fanfare and offered nothing new, and I had to ask for extra pancakes and hoisin sauce.
My best guess is that Chinatown Brasserie—located nowhere near Chinatown—is designed to be an Asian Balthazar. The room has some buzz, the cocktails are great, the wine list extensive (100 bottles, ten available by the glass) and the location ideal for partyhoppers. Just don’t be surprised if the food at your table reminds you of the cartoned leftovers in your fridge.