Maneuvering through what is almost inarguably the dodgiest area of town to approach China Xiang, my expectations for the restaurant just about imploded. Needless to say it was quite heartening when the food began to arrive to squelch this misperception. The room itself is pretty bare-bones, although a step up from what you normally find in Chinatown. Charcoal grey stonework comprises one wall, and there are some attractive modern lanterns suspended from the ceiling, but the windowed facade looking out onto a shoddy stretch of 42nd street doesn't do much to improve the ambiance. So shift your focus to the voluminous menu, spanning from an innocuous but respectable saute of mixed vegetables, to more audaciously authentic Hunan fare like chili-spiked frog or baked corn with a salted egg. While the former is a laudable, if somewhat uninspired melange of crisp-tender broccoli, enoki and straw mushrooms, plus the requisite water chestnuts and ba mboo shoots, the hacked-up frog jumps in to sate more ambitious palates. It boasts an incendiary duet of chilies, red as an engine and green as… well, frog. It is the scarlet ones to which one should pay deference, although the frog-hued ones too are not just there for decoration. Pay attention to the bones, too, as this meat will need to be sucked off of them. If that's a little much for you, there are numerous soups, rice dishes and noodles, of course, skinny lo mein or fat, hand shaved ones slicked with a subtly sweet, umami-rich glaze best teamed up with meaty pork of beef. The ingredients utilized are all exceedingly fresh, from garlicky flaps of woodear mushroom accompanying a sauté of tender chicken to fat bulbs of brilliant jade bok choy steamed juicy and crisp. To quaff is beer and wine only, and while the pinot grigio works well enough with the cuisine, it's not a particularly admirable bottle: better off with suds.
The service is basically what one has come to expect in a casual Chinese restaurant, but glasses of ice water are efficiently refilled and a server will readily come to your assistance when beckoned. As far as desserts go, you don't get to choose. There's one option, a funny, somewhat pasty puree of purple potato piped into, weirdly enough, miniature Tostitos Scoops, and to add to the hilarity, spritzed with a sprinkle of turquoise Pop Rocks. Get these just for the novelty if you're inclined, because although consuming one is an amusement, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting more than a taste, let alone the six of which arrive. Otherwise, grab a fortune cookie from the deep bowl at reception and ponder your fate on a white slip of paper as you exit, hopefully with a great enough satisfaction from dinner to distract you through the unsavory sidewalks of Port Authority on your way home.
BY TIME OUT COMMUNITY REVIEWER: DEBORAH FENKER