Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang’s Cafe China was one of NYC’s favorite Sichuan restaurants for a decade before it closed its original address last year in anticipation of relocating about an avenue west on 37th Street in Manhattan. The new space would be larger, spanning three stories including private dining areas on the top floor. It would also be a couple of minutes closer to the transit hub at Herald Square. But in the interim: intrigue.
The vacated space, which was Michelin-starred for most of its existence, was taken over by a pair of Cafe China’s previous employees, Eater New York reported. Allegations of intellectual property copy, rebuttals and further comments flew before Cafe China opened its new doors in December.
The bar is roomy enough for more than just reservation-waiting drinks, which are good enough for a visit even pre-appetite. Some signature cocktails (all $15) are familiar from Cafe China’s first iteration. The Fallen Angels gives bourbon a feathery landing with lemon juice, grenadine and bitters. The Flowers of Shanghai skews more confectionery, with gin, floral parfait amour liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and ever-uplifting egg white. Classics (all $15) shake out nicely, too, and stay close to form. The Old Fashioned incorporates two types of bitters, and the Manhattan’s made with rye as a matter of course. Both wisely stop short of “takes.”
The comfortable adjacent dining room is splashed with swipes of green and illuminated by chandeliers that look like upturned bouquets of golden daffodils. Fringed lampshades dangle over some of the gleaming, seafoam-hued tabletops. The same aesthetic slinks upstairs, where a more communal-style seating arrangement overlooks the tri-toned checkered floor one flight below. It’s subtly polished sprawl, with room for large parties, duos or solo diners.
As with the drinks, some plates return, too, like the vegetable or pork pot stickers ($9), mung bean jelly ($9) and the wonderfully fragrant, carefully cut cumin lamb ($25), which is plated without a single unwelcome bite. Its spiced perfume pops like an ethereal amuse bouche before it hits the table. Yielding slices are rich and refreshing with somewhat sparing chili pepper heat trembling under the beat of lightly earthy top notes.
Another holdover, the vegetarian mapo tofu ($16) with firmer than typical bean curd cubes seems, instead, designed for the heat averse, absent the expected numbing, fiery effect. The restraint is puzzling given the dynamic flavors in some of Cafe China’s more successful dishes.
The spicy soft shell crab ($38), for example, zags back toward the restaurant’s punchy expertise. It's a texture hat-trick: The crab is chopped before frying for an even coating over the naturally barely-crackling surface that covers the crustacean’s tender, almost sweet interior.
Laced with vibrant dried chili peppers and punctuated with Sichuan peppercorns, it flirts toward the edge of heat and leaves you wanting more in a brilliantly calibrated fashion. This, and the cumin lamb both distinctly recall the best of what Cafe China has had to offer since 2011, and promise a bright future.
The Vibe: Comfortable, welcoming and unpretentiously polished.
The Food: Cafe China’s Sichuan menu will appease both heat-likers and spice dabblers.
The Drinks: Creative novel cocktails and true-to-form classics, plus beer, wine, house made plum juice and tea.
Time Out Tip: The last seating is an hour before closing each day, so 9:30pm from Sunday-Thursday and 10pm Friday-Saturday.