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May 10, 2000 10:51 AM

China Grill - Dumbing Down of Food and Service

  • l

China Grill at 52 East 53rd St. has always been over-priced. Used to be "hot"--which normally makes me feel quite chilled. BUT--in past years we had some excellent dishes there, by asking questions and ordering carefully. Dishes like crisy, lemony calamari salad, sizzling, crunchy shredded beef, whole grilled fish, etc.

My last lunch there, two months ago, was a travesty of food and service.

Our favorite seafood starter arrived as a challenging new dining game--"Find the Calamari!" Hidden in a humongous tangle of what appeared to be an already chewed mound of lettuce (can they Osterize salad???), the limp calamari barely peeked out. We shifted thru the tasteless greenery, finding the existing calamari softened by all that salad stuff. Because it was the first time we'd had a complaint there, we let it go. (Plus--it was a Sunday--chef's day off in midtown?)

Then the lamb dumplings arrived, luke-warm, nothing special and about $13 for six of them.

My last hope was the main course (one I'd ordered in the past there.) One of my favorite dishes in any Asian restaurant is always fresh grilled whole fish in ginger and scallions. The menu described it as "sizzling in ginger and scallions." But when it arrived--insstead of grilled or pan-fried--it had been heavily fried in a batter--and coated with a sickly sweet, completely wrong, sauce.

I called the waitress over. She was sort of "duh....." and looked unhappy to be stirred from her post. She managed to summon someone "in charge"-- a guy who pointed to the menu and said "it doesn't say 'grilled'--it just says "sizzling." I reread the description. True! It DIDN't say grilled--but when have you ever ordered a "sizzling whole fish in ginger and scallions" from an Asian restaurant--and gotten a thick-battered fish in sweet sauce?" THAT is called "sweet and sour whole fish." It was so obvious that they'd changed the dish (I'd had the correct rendition the time before)--but not the menu.

I asked if they could just grill me the fish plain--and with the ginger sauce it was supposed to come in. "No," they could not do that. I guess all these fish portions had arrived at the restaurant already 'ready-to-go.' In fact, the manager looked irked at my request--or maybe he was just confused. He didn't appear to know a thing about cooking fish.

I haven't written to the owner yet--I wanted to check in with you fellow chowhounds, so you could let me know, if:

a) I was stupid to expect better from a midtown work-area restaurant on a Sunday.

b) Was I unreasonable when I told them if they plan to serve fish in batter, they should change that menu decription?

Their service and manner was, of course, inexcusable. But the food really had slid downhill. Maybe that's why, two months later, I'm still grumbling under my breath--and angry with myself for not writing them.

Please send me your own experiences at China Grill.

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  1. Definately write the owner. Let us know the results. Regardless of what the menu said and what you received, the staff should have been more accomodating. Usually places of that "scale" will, appologize and ask if they can prepare you something else. Perhaps they couldn't grill the fish, but I'm sure there was something else you could have chosen. I'm surprised they didn't give you that option.

    1. Just curious: Anyone else had the same experience as Lynn with the "crackling calimari salad"? It used to be one of my favorite dishes around, but I haven't been to China Grill in a while.

      1. I had my first meal there on Easter Sunday (another Sunday, FWIW) on the recommendation of friends. The foie gras appetizer in a kind of caramelized sauce was wonderful, no complaint there--not inexpensive, but really, really good. I ordered the crispy duck salad appetizer as an entree and when it came wanted a glass of wine to go with it. My waitress (it couldnt have been the same gal...) was MIA. I waited for a long time, finally turning and staring at a 45 degreee angle toward the bar where she was deep in conversation. Finally a busboy took pity on me and got her attention. A second glass of wine was out of the question. The conversation at the bar was in full spate. I sat unattended for the duration of the meal. The salad was fine, but I wouldnt particularly care to have it again. When my dishes were cleared I waited again. And waited. My waitress finally came by with the requisite "coffee or dessert?" and I asked for the dessert menu, and that was the last I saw of her. Period. I got up, finally, put my coat on, and strolled to the restroom--at least I found my check on the table when I returned. This was not, by any means, a busy evening at the restaurant. It's the first time in my memory that I havent left a tip of any kind.

        1. I used to work on the next block and that used to be a good place to take business people. The food was always novel, interesting, I remember the panko crusted lamb as a standout. There were definitely downsides. First of all the NOISE in that place is horrendous. High ceilings and hard floors will create an echo-ful ruckous like you won't believe. I found it difficult to talk there.

          Second, I found the service to be very cold and uninformed. Very much similar to what the others wrote before. I have to say that I am sort of biased. I tend to have bad experiences with any place that tries to make a "modern" variation of Asian cuisine.

          One thing I would like to comment. I agree that if the fish is not what you expected, you have all the right to complain and point that out. But certainly in my opinion I think when you order a whole fish at a place like the China Grill, you should expect something completely different from your fave Cantonese stand by in Chinatown. The two manifestations are bound to be different.

          Michael Yu

          1 Reply
          1. re: Michael Yu

            When I read the 1st posting about the fish, I was under the impression that the person had the same fish dish at China Grill before, and that fish was what they were comparing it to, not a fish at another locale. Have to read that post again...