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High class AUTHENTIC Chinese ... possible?

Enough high class Chinese restaurants exist ... Mr. Chows, Chinatown Brasserie. But is the experience and food authentically Chinese enough? And if not, is this possible?

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  1. Of course it's possible, if you live in a city with a high enough Chinese population. I can think of at least a handful of places in both SF and LA that have authentic, high end Chinese food. They're usually the restaurants where people hold birthday parties or weddings with 10-20 course meals, usually heavy on seafood and things most Americans would consider exotic. Menus from $50-500 a head would not be hard to construct.

    One of my peeves is that my friends will happily shell out $60+ for French or Japanese food, but whine when I want to go out for a nice $50 Chinese meal. "Why? That's sooo expensive for Chinese! Chinese is cheap!" No, it's not. Not when you want live lobster, jellyfish, abalone, sea cucumbers, a whole sea bass, giant prawns, and shark's fin all in the same sitting. Of course, that menu would be more than the $50 I try to get my friends to spend for a more modest but still stellar meal.

    In Asia, of course, the possibilities for high class Chinese dining are endless.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Pei

      I would just point out... that people in the U.S. would never have considered spending more than $20 on Italian cuisine until Americans started traveling to Italy more & had quality high-end cuisine there. Now it is not unusual to blow some serious dollars at high end Italian places.

      A couple of years ago we blew $300 a head, on an expense account, at L'Emperio in Murray Hill (Manhattan).

      It is simple... China is on a path to Economic Superpowerdom... its going to take another 30 to 50 years... but China will become a Fashion & Trend Setter... that is what it will take people to wipe out the image of $5 take out... and crave high end Chinese cuisine.

      Restaurant Economics is driven by Foodies (people who don't much about food... but will shell out big $ to feel like haves... but they are only going to want what the haves desire). When China becomes a Fashion & Trend Setter... American Celebrities will want all things Chinese & thats when the Foodies aka Petty Burgeosie will want high end Chinese.

      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        :) I don't need to wait so long or go to such extremed. I just strongarm my friends into one or two meals, after which they're forced to concede Chinese food is just as "fancy" and a much better value than a lot of other high end dining.

        1. re: Pei

          Yeah but convincing a few friends isn't going to make an impact on a critical mass of people.

          As an example... those who know me, who have eaten at my home & whom have traveled to Mexico with me... are already convinced that Mexican cuisines are the greatest on the planet... that French cuisine is better in the Franco-Mexican restaurants in Mexico City than in their French origins etc., but look around... the majority of Chowhounds are still happy with finding the best Mission style burrito.

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            I agree with your general sentiment, but would point out that it's already pretty easy to find high class Chinese dining in big American cities. Mexican seems to be a little tougher. There's no need for me to drag my friends to China with me, or to cook them a fancy meal myself.

            To answer the question of decor, "fancy" does often mean a Western aesthetic, whether or not the food is traditional. Sometimes this means Asian with Western influence, Western with Asian influence, or sometimes full on French--with chopsticks.

            1. re: Pei

              "...would point out that it's already pretty easy to find high class Chinese dining in big American cities."

              According to Ruth Reichl, this is patently untrue. I know that in NYC, there are a lot of expensive or trendy fusion Chinese restaurants, but they aren't 'authentic' or 'high-class' -- places like Mr. Chow, 66, Buddakan, etc. Reichl's explanation is that there isn't an audience for it here in NYC.

              You can see her Charlie Rose interview and our subsequent discussion about it here:
              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

              Alan Yau's new place Park Chinois is about to open, which will aim for a multi-star experience but even this incarnation is going to be French-Chinese fusion (so I hear).

              Reichl's comment about the invitation-only places in Las Vegas is elaborated upon in an article she wrote about in a past issue of Gourmet.

              1. re: Pupster

                Uh, before you get on your high horse, please remember New York is not the only big city in this country. I haven't looked back at your link, but my recollection of her broadcast is that she was answering a question from Rose on why *NY* doesn't have good Chinese food, not that America doesn't have good Chinese. She acknowledged areas outside of NY which do have monied Chinese immigrant clientele to support better restaurants.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Wasn't on a high horse, which is why I was answering for NYC only. Can't speak for the West Coast, so I didn't.

                  That said, it was interesting that she singled out Vegas as the best, not SF or LA or even Seattle which I would have thought would be true. Also, I took 'big American cities' as more inclusive than even you (more than SF, LA or NYC) in which case I still don't think that statement is true.

                  1. re: Pupster

                    My apologies, from the syntax, I assumed you were saying that Pei's statement was patently untrue just because NY has lousy Chinese food. Reichl's point about Chinese restaurant quality is that the best chefs follow the money. NY does not have the monied Chinese immigrants; Las Vegas casinos do. SF, LA, and Vancouver also do.

                    And, to speak to Eat Nopal's point, high end Chinese dining does not have to rely on non-Chinese being converted, the critical mass of clientele to support them already exists among the affluent immigrant Chinese population on the West Coast. I believe it was Robert Lauriston who quipped that the SF Bay Area's best Chinese eateries are in suburbs known for Chinese restaurants and the best public schools ---the community's values in a nutshell.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Melanie... I am sure you are much more an expert on the subject than me... but I would be really surprised if any Chinese American neighborhoods (and I am very familiar with Rowland Heights a Chinese neighborhood in L.A. were all the homes are $800k+, because I dated a woman that lived there)... have any restaurants that come close... in decor, style & quality to what you would find in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing.

                      To support those levels of restaurants here in the U.S... I really do believe you need to tap into Non-Chinese affluent people.

                2. re: Pupster

                  There are actually a few high end authentic Chinese places in NYC. wu liang ye, while not extremely high end has a packed house, atmosphere, and $20 entrees for very good Sichuanese food.
                  It's not SF, but there is lots of good authentic Chinese, and a few high end places. Only trend followers go to places like Mr. Chow.

                3. re: Pei

                  Whether high end Chinese is easier to find than high end Mexican wasn't the relevant topic... it is about whether high end Chinese is authentic & will it ever be generally accepted in U.S. culture. To which I believe you commented that most people (even Chowhounds) would not think to spend serious dollars on Chinese cuisine. I insist that you will not get a critical mass of American Foodies or Chowhounds spending big bucks on Chinese cuisine until China becomes fashionable to the degree that Italy & France are fashionable. I am sure 99.9% of Americans would say they think its never going to happen... but I firmly believe that China is less than 50 years away from having that level of appeal.

                  In terms of whether fancy restaurants are a Western aesthetic... I think that is a silly statement. What Western aesthetic was created in a vacuum... without any Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese or Japanese influence?

                  If you research all the great French chefs & restarateurs from France's Modernist culinary movement of the 1970's... they will all agree that Chinese & Japanese cooking techniques & aesthetics were a huge influence on them.... the whole idea of small platings of food, artistically arranged on an oversized plate... all had Asian inspiration.

                  Further... when we talk about China's best cuisine... we aren't talking of dishes created by the peasants or the street vendors in Shanghai... we are talking about food created for Royalty served in Palaces... that speaks of a multi-millenary tradition of Decor as an essential element in high end Chinese cuisine.

            2. re: Eat_Nopal

              I think the fashion and trendsetting thing is happening much faster then you think. Although with food and cuisine it will take longer as you suggest given food has less of an instant pop culture factor to it. The internet and kids will to try new/newer stuff moves things very fast these days.

          2. That brings up a question of whether "expensive/high end" means the same as "high class" and what "high class" really means. I've had some very expensive authentic Chinese banquets (basically the foods PEI listed w/ 15 or so courses) where you do dress up, but at some regular chinese places. Is that considered "high class" or does the surrounding matter? Or does "high class" mean more westernized surroundings?

            11 Replies
            1. re: chowser

              I should specify that I assumed cadireon was talking about both ambiance and food. If we're talking about expensive food in a "shorts okay" environment, even more Chinese restaurants fit the bill.

              1. re: Pei

                Yes, that's my question about the ambiance. Is it using western standards on a different culture? What would a high class chinese restaurant look like? A more westernized restaurant?

                1. re: chowser

                  I ate at the fancy Chinese restaurant at The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok a few years ago. Very elegant service and setting, more like a four-star french restaurant. The food was delicious and authentic. Expensive but worth it. We ended up ordering twice as much as we could eat just so we could sample several items (there were only two of us).

                  1. re: chowser

                    The highest regarded high-end restaurant in Beijing (by the city's rich & powerful) is the Shanghai Fenwei Cantig at the Hotel Kunlun... go the following link & click on Shanghai restaurant to see imgages:

                    http://www.hotelkunlun.com/english/Di...

                    Also click on the Jin Yuan Sichuan Restaurant.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      It does look beautiful but it looks like a Ritz Carlton w/ some chinese touches. And, ironically, the only customer they show is a blond. Maybe the whole concept of "high class" is a western one. I imagine that the people frequenting the restaurant are foreigners.

                      1. re: chowser

                        I think you clicked on Jade Restaurant, which does look like a Ritz. The Shanghai restaurant is more traditionally Chinese looking. I think the different decor of the restaurants on that link show a good variety of what kind the different kinds of "high class" ambiance in contemporary Chinese dining.

                        1. re: Pei

                          You're right--I don't think I clicked on a restaurant but the one that came up (and I didn't notice until you pointed it out) was the Jade Restaurant.

                        2. re: chowser

                          Bear in mind that Hong Kong has a higher per capita income than most European countries and until just recently, higher than the US. I can assure you that its high end restaurants, unlike Michelin 3-stars in France, do not cater mostly to foreigners.

                          As far as what a high end restaurant, non-hotel Chinese rstaurant would look like, you'll find silver or gold-plated chopsticks, exquisite porcelain tea cups so thin that you can see through them, custom designed tableware for each course, luxury ingredients, rare teas served at different stages of the meal, individual plating of courses where appropriate (not all served family style), fine linens, and impeccable HK-style service.

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            Thanks--I was thinking out loud before and tossing out an idea--not speaking from personal experience in Asia, esp. high end restaurants there. I should formulate my thoughts more in my mind before I post but it's great to get everyone's perspective. Taiwan is also like Hong Kong in terms of the high income levels. My parents have told me about restaurants there that serve gold thread and other very expensive food (including 8-12 oz glasses of XO which still puzzles them), not for foreigners but natives. There is a large population of Asians in the US who could sustain a restaurant like that so it is a good question why there is not.

                          2. re: chowser

                            While it's less common in the US, many luxury hotels in Asia often have correspondingly luxurious restaurants to match. I still remember a meal where each course was presented to the table with one arrangement, and then served on individual plates in a different arrangement. The most dramatic was a phoenix -- careful placement of sliced ingredients on a big platter -- that was distributed to individual serving plates where the pieces were arranged to form a smaller bird.

                          3. re: Eat_Nopal

                            This is great! It's exactly what I had in mind. My concern with extravagance is that there is always a Western influence. The Shanghai Restaurant is a great model of what chinese restaurants can achieve internationally.

                    2. I agree with Pei that people still equate Chinese with cheap ethnic food. Three or four people get an appetizer or soup then each gets a dish that's shared family style. The coordination might be that somebody gets seafod, another chicken, the third a vegetable. Then bring on the fortune cookies.
                      Nobody eats Italian or French meals this way. A fine multi-course meal has a progression from the first to last course and a Chinese banquet is a similar experience.
                      The problem is that you need a reasonable size group (probably 10 people) to make it worthwhile for a restaurant. Some restaurants offer this during holidays or by arrangement and it's worth doing.
                      The up-side is that you often get things not normally on the menu and that are traditional Chinese dishes not Westernized specialties.
                      I've had Chinese banquets in the US and in China and they were completely different than the experince of eating off the menu. Things I would never have known enough to order, that weren't normally available. And well, well worth the money.

                      1. I've worked in Chinese restaurants and I've eaten in more of them than I can count. In most Chinese restaurants (including the "authentic" ones), they serve the Chinese equivalent of hamburgers and fries. In other words, they serve mostly foods you eat every day, albeit improved a bit for restaurant use. It's cheap because it's not all that special to many Chinese patrons.

                        If you go to a wedding banquet or order the higher-priced fixed-price menus at a large Chinese restaurant, the food there is almost always for special occasions. It's the same as going to a high-priced French or Italian restaurant. My wedding banquet cost about $30/person, and it wasn't the most expensive option.

                        Most large Chinese restaurants would be happy to serve a high-end meal, but expect to pay $20-$50 per person. You usually need about 8-10 people for these. The fixed-price menus are geared for Chinese patrons, so they are written in Chinese. The price is for the entire meal.

                        If you cannot read Chinese, ask the staff about such meals. Trust me: they will be more than happy to serve them, because they make bigger profit from these.

                        In which city do you live?

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: raytamsgv

                          Yes, if you read Chinese, then you will get much more authentic and can get very expensive meals. This of course, depends on where you live and what Chinese restaurant you are going to. You can get wonderful homestyle dishes for cheap, and fabulous, expensive and imaginative dishes too. I once saw a group buying a very expensive dinner, one dish, they cooked live, whole, prawns at the table by flambe-ing them with expensive rice wine.

                          1. re: peppatty

                            You don't need to be able to read, as much as be able to speak. My in-laws never use a menu, chinese or otherwise. And, my parents friends will sometimes bring their own food, if it's something unusual, and have the chef do something with it. I have no idea how they charge for something like that!

                            1. re: chowser

                              True, true. My mom orders by asking what the specials are and barely ever looks at the menu. We definitely have order things that aren't on the menus, but are chef specialties, and seasonal. Bring your own, such as legal free dive abalone, is a thrill for the chef as it is the people who are eating. I suppose they charge and customize depending how good a patron you are...or if you share...

                              1. re: chowser

                                Its true, when I eat with my relatives we don't look at the menu. We tell the restaurant what we want to eat a couple of days ahead and they prepare it. Some of these dishes have many steps in the prepration. You will only eat well if you know how to order in a Chinese restaurant. Prices can really get obscene dependent on what you want. I had abalone once at $900 a pound. I have to say that is some of the best abalone I had in my life. You won't come across that in a typical restaurant in Chinatown.

                            2. re: raytamsgv

                              I suppose it's not ONLY whether the food is high end. But the restaurant, the environment, the experience, the whole package. Nevertheless, where was your wedding banquet that it cost 30pp? That's pretty much unheard of in NYC! The cheapest in these parts and this is a recent pricing is 40pp.

                            3. in my experience, "expensive" or "high class" in chinese restaurants, stateside or in China, tends to = gross. In chinese culture, you show respect for your guests by serving them rare dishes, the more you like them/are trying to impress them is proportionate to the rarity of the delicacies. Unfortunately, rare dishes are usually cruel and horrible and/or bad tasting, and are meant to be eaten while still alive. or are things on the endangered species list.

                              The best stuff are the staples, done well. Which is hard to find outside of china, even in a place like LA or SF.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: lkp210

                                Wow, strong equation + not true. Showing respect is by buying for everyone, and making the guest happy by ordering what the guest would enjoy. Yes, there are a few endangered things, sharks fin for one, not sure about birds nest (spit) or frog mucus, but, one person's gross, is another's yum!

                                1. re: lkp210

                                  I wouldn't exactly say gross. Perhaps just not authentic enough. And even in some cases, it tends to be close. Peking Duck House (www.pekingduckhousenyc.com) is one such restaurant in NYC's ctown. The setting is very western and while it caters to quite a mixed crowd, the food is quite authentic and very good. Not extremely high end but definitely not the chicken fried rice joint on a corner(which they do have).

                                  Contrary to that, however, in my travels to China (as north as beijing and as south as hkg), the best food tends to be the local joints. And I think it would be great if local chinese flavors can be represented in a way where restaurant goers can feel genuinely rewarded with the whole experience.