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The Wu Liang Ye Challenge (long)

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I just posted this on Word of Mouth. Since it's about Chowhound as well as 2 branches of Wu Liang Ye, I figured I'd copy it here.

Wu Liang Ye II: Hounded

After I wrote about my visit to Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street, I posted an abridged version of my report on Chowhound. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Chowhound, it’s the preeminent restaurant message board on the internet. Chowhound regulars tend to be extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and opinionated; more than just food-obsessed, many of them are clearly food-possessed. At its best the Chowhound community is an international restaurant espionage network, an amazing source of intelligence, and one that is unlikely to land me in a quagmire. At its worst there can be a pack mentality among posters at times, and woe betide he who strays from the accepted Chowhound wisdom.

My comment that Wu Liang Ye is “the nonpareil top Sichuan restaurant in New York today" elicited a response from no less than the top dog himself (though he calls himself the Alpha Hound), Jim Leff, Chowhound’s founder. “Please try the branch on 86th street, and see if you still feel that way,” he wrote. “As far as I'm concerned, the latter is one of the greatest restaurants in NYC. I've been tracking the chef for many years, and am completely mesmerized by his cooking.”

“Tracking the chef”! This guy means business. He tracks chefs and restaurants the way a Wall Street analyst tracks stocks or a racing enthusiast tracks horses and jockeys. I pricked up my taste buds. This was a challenge that had to be met.

I arranged a meal for five at the 86th Street branch. I was the first to arrive, and I started chatting with the waiter. “I’ve been to the restaurant on 48th Street a bunch of times, but this is my first time here,” I told him.

“Same food here. Same chef,” he replied.

“I heard from somebody that the food here is even better, and that the chef is different” I said.

“Ah. General chef work out of 48th street. General chef brother work here.” I didn’t tell him that brother and brother were about to go mano a mano.

I also found out the meaning of Wu Liang Ye. I already knew that the restaurant was named for a famous Chinese liquor, but I didn’t know what the words meant. Now I know. Wu Liang Ye means five-grain liquor.

My guests arrived and I explained that they were all part of the Wu Liang Ye challenge. For the most part I ordered some of the dishes I love most at 48th street, as a benchmark.

The excellent pan-seared dumplings were indistinguishable from the excellent ones at 48th Street. The dan dan noodles, which easily make the short list of New York noodle immortals, were spectacular, but not noticeably different from those at 48th Street. Incidentally, I misleadingly referred to this as a cold noodle dish in my prior piece. It's actually served warm at Wu Liang Ye.

The ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili-peanut vinaigrette was a big hit with this group as it was with the prior one, but I found the 86th Street version a bit spicier and less multi-dimensionally flavored than the one at the sister branch, perhaps a bit short on the vinegar.

The camphor tea smoked duck was incredibly moist and delicious, though a bit fattier and less crisp-skinned than the 48th Street version (which might have given the meat itself the edge).

I found no noticeable difference between the two versions of ma po tofu. Either one would qualify as the best in the city.

The two biggest disappointments were the sauteed spinach with garlic and the prawns wah bah (a/k/a wor bar), with toasted rice cakes on a sizzling platter. I had mentioned in the previous report that vegetables are not Wu Liang Ye’s strong suit, but I always like to have at least one green vegetable at a Chinese meal. The spinach, unfortunately was over-salted. The prawns wah bah was a misstep on my part since it’s not a Sichuan dish, but I hadn’t tried one in years, and there was, coincidentally, a recent Chowhound discussion about the dish, which had put a bee in my bonnet. The prawns themselves were huge, fresh and excellent, but the sauce was heavy and lackluster.

So, overall, I was unable to find any real differences that would recommend one branch of Wu Liang Ye over the other. I wondered what I was missing that Jim Leff finds so clearly superior about 86th Street. I questioned my perceptions. Is my palate less sophisticated than that of the Alpha Hound? Is Jim capable of distinguishing subtle gradations that are lost on me?

Ultimately, regaining my self-esteem, I decided there were two possible explanations: either the 86th Street branch was having an off night, which led it to be merely excellent rather than transcendent, or Jim has had less experience with the 48th Street branch and was not giving it the credit it deserved. I’ve only been dining at Wu Liang Ye for about two years, so there may have been improvements at the midtown branch that have not made Jim’s radar.

Whatever the explanation, there are other reasons to recommend the 86th Street branch. It’s less hectic than midtown, and the staff is friendlier. In addition, the prices are a bit cheaper. It is not, however, three blocks from my office.

Link: http://petercherches.blogspot.com

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  1. great review. i eat at the 37th (?) street branch all the time and love it. how does it stack up with 86th and 48th street? im addicted to their chengdu in broth soup.

    4 Replies
    1. re: mj
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      Peter Cherches

      I haven't tried that one yet.

      1. re: mj

        I eat at 86th street and order from 37th street fairly often. I think the food is a little better at 86th street, though it may well be because I'm actually at the restaurant there and only order from 37th for lunch, which I'm sure it must make at least some difference quality-wise.

        I could just plain live on their sesame noodles, which are the best sesame noodles I've ever eaten and which I must always, always order. Everything is consistently very good and if I don't like a dish, it's because I don't like that particular food (I hate Ma Po Tofu, no matter who makes it, so I don't like Liang Ye's either). Their duck dishes are fabulous, and I've never had a bad beef or fish dish. Oh, and (I'm grinning sheepishly and a little embarassed, but...) I so love their won ton soup. Love love love. And their Sauteed String Beans.

        I'm hungry and this post has made the Wu Liang Ye decision easy for me. Am off to order Sesame Noodles and whatever.

        1. re: mj

          It's actually on Lex, b/t 39th & 40th Sts. I've only eaten once at the 48th St. branch, and that was so long ago that I have no memory of what we had.

          1. re: mj

            I went once to the Lexington branch since posting this. I think it's decidedly inferior to the other two.

          2. Green vegetable: sponge gourd (aka loofah) is your only bet in a sichuan place. prawns wah bah were a mistake. Otherwise you ordered quite well.

            Try, next time, hand shredded chicken in chili vinagrette. And wok seared chili peppers. And anything with tendon or tripe. And the "special duck" (not always avail). And anything with scungili. I'm not saying that's the only good stuff to order. But those will serve as an entre into the magnificence (and distinctiveness) of this chef.

            I, meanwhile, will try 47 street again, and see if they're playing chef roulette.

            BTW, I'm just another hound. The "Alpha Hound/Big-Dog" business is tongue in cheek. Trust your own impressions, not those of nominal experts.

            ciao

            2 Replies
            1. re: Jim Leff
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              Peter Cherches

              Hey Jim, I was being tongue-in-cheek too. It makes good copy.

              1. re: Peter Cherches

                I know, but there are a few people reading along who might not understand....

            2. How does Wu Liang Ye compare to Spicy & Tasty? See link below for a report on a meal there (unfortunately not by me)

              Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

              3 Replies
              1. re: Brian S

                Oh... and about tracking the chef. The top chefs move from place to place without warning. I wish I knew a way to track them! See link to post below, from 2001, and Jim's reply.

                Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                1. re: Brian S

                  I was going to mention that syndrome, but I know for a fact my guy's at the 86th street place. the 47th street chef sounds to be somebody better than the last two times I tried that location (which was a few years ago)

                2. re: Brian S

                  "How does Wu Liang Ye compare to Spicy & Tasty?"

                  I like Wu Liang Ye just fine but I'd still rank S&T above it. The menu at S&T is a bit more extensive and the cooking is consistently at a very high level. (I was just there on Friday and they haven't slipped a bit.) At WLY some dishes will be outstanding while others will be a solid "good." S&T will deliver at a higher level on a broader range of dishes.

                  The thing is, if you work in midtown WLY is a great choice in a convenient location. I'm very glad it's there. Accessibility counts.

                  Another great choice for Szechuan in midtown is Szechuan Gourmet on 39th St. between 5th and 6th. While not quite as good as S&T I think it compares very favorably with WLY.

                3. I just did a duck update on my blog, with a photo:

                  I've written about Wu Liang Ye several times before, but that was before I had become comfortable with shooting food photos, so the posts were unillustrated. I had a camera with me for a recent lunch at the 48th Street branch of Wu Liang Ye, and I shot this photo of the camphor tea-smoked duck, perhaps my favorite item on the menu.

                  This may well be the most remarkable duck I've ever eaten. The meat is juicy, with a bacony smokiness that compliments rather than masks the essential duck flavor. The skin is perfectly crisp, with just enough fat left to add another texture to the ensemble. The preparation differs at the various branches, however. At 86th Street the skin was much less crisp, and the overall result was a greasier, fattier duck (albeit with wonderful meat). I've also tried the tea-smoked duck at Szechuan Gourmet (39th Street), Grand Sichuan International (Hell's Kitchen branch, now closed), and Spicy & Tasty (Flushing). While most Sichuan places do a respectable version of the dish, none can compare with the rendition at Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street.

                  http://petercherches.blogspot.com

                   
                  1. I prefer the mapo tofu at Szechuan Gourmet to the dish at the 48th St WLY. They also do deep-fried dishes better at SG, imo.