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High class AUTHENTIC Chinese ... possible?

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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.

                                2. The price of an entree doesn't define "high end." I think what Melanie Wong and Pei are referring to is Chinese haute cuisine, or traditional formal meals, which is different from what most American Chinese restaurants provide. This would include beautiful bowls and plates, formal presentations, appropriate tea service (as we would pair wines), precious chopsticks, elegant table settings, etc.
                                  I've eaten at formal Chinese restaurants in Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong that were closer to Le Bernardin than they were to even the most expensive Chinese restaurants that I've been to in the US.
                                  It's not a question of "the best food" because I can also tell you where to get the best hamburgers and fried chicken. But Chinese haute cuisine is different from Chinese food as a generality. Both can be "authentic" but they're apples and oranges.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    Indeed, the formal meals with major presentations, as you describe, are based in part on royal banquets. I don't think it can get any more "high class" then that. In that sense, is Chinese cuisine any different from any other cuisine with trickle down, etc.?

                                    I mean, how does a state dinner at the White House compare to "high class" AUTHENTIC American? In some ways the question itself is a little funny. Class, quality and flavor are not necessarily attached automatically. I mean who hasn't gone to a SUPER nice, high class place and the meal was subpar. Some might argue that "class" and "authentic" are counter intuitive to one another.

                                    Sticky question without qualifications.

                                  2. I've learned a lot in this thread--thanks everyone. Has this even been tried in the US? I would think there is a market for it. Typically, you'd think of Indian food in the same realm where it's generally inexpensive but in DC, there's the Bombay Club which is apparently successfully, serving authentic, high end Indian food. I haven't been but have heard from friends whose parents are from India and frequent it.

                                    http://www.bombayclubdc.com/

                                    I think an ambitious entrepreneur/chef could make it work.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: chowser

                                      Great conclusion! I second what you said. It's definitely given me a revelation. I hope I can make it work!

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        There are a number of high-end Indian restaurants in the country... as a matter of fact there a high-end restaurants for all the cuisines that are popular in the U.S.

                                        For example, I can think of at least 20 very high end Mexican restaurants that I have been to in the U.S.... but this is a miniscule amount when you compare to the number of French, Italian, California & New American restaurants.

                                        Again it is an image thing. The lack of high-end Mexican, Indian, Chinese or Thai restaurants in the U.S. has nothing to do with limiations in those countries' storied cuisines (they are certainly part of world's elite cuisine club)... it has more to do with the limitations of the American Foodie & the American mainstream consumer.

                                        Lets keep one thing in perspective... its the U.S. that is relatively new to fine dining, not the other way around.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          Well, not to put too fine a point on it, you're only likely to get high-end ethnic dining in places where there are enough people of that ethnicity with enough money to support them. High-end French (or French-inspired) is so entrenched because that was what fine dining was for the last 200 years; Italian is right behind it, because the ingredients are familiar and some of the technique is the same.

                                          Furthermore, you don't find authentic high-end Chinese restaurants because the restaurants that serve high-end Chinese food also serve low-end Chinese food to those who can't or won't discern between the levels of quality. Those same waiters at a dim sum restaurant who pour water and count up your bill with disdain can also be the most attentive and elegant waitstaff when an expensive banquet happens.

                                          The problem is deep-rooted. In China, a high-end dinner is a test of a chef's skills and has nothing to do with the restaurant in which it's eaten -- you order the food you want and it is up to the chefs to make it, there is no mucking about with pre-written menus. In the West, a high-end dinner is a presentation by the chef of what he or she does best, which means you choose from a menu of preset choices.

                                          As Ruth Reichl has said, Chinese banquet negotiations are a contest of wills between the patron, who wants the rarest and most elaborate dishes, and the restaurant manager, who tests the patron to try and maximise the profit by including cheap food in the set banquet price (for example, the patron must be smart enough to cut such nonsense as egg rolls from the menu). I went with a friend once to a banquet hall to do negotiations in person. It started from the getgo, with the manager addressing her in Cantonese and my friend cutting him off with frigid Mandarin. It was loud, it was completely snobby, and involved exaggerated movements like tearing up sheets of paper and passively-aggressive statements like, "Well, if your chef hasn't the skills do it, I understand..."

                                          I can't imagine a similarly loud and (to Western ears) unpleasant scene in a Western high-end restaurant.

                                      2. I've never been to Mr.Chow's or Chinatown Brasserie, but I think a lot of chinese restaurants are pretty upscale. Granted I don't think you'll ever be turned away for wearing jeans, but the food at restaurants in Manhattan/Flushing Chinatowns are usually first rate. They also usually have chefs trained in China working in the kitchen, which would lend a lot more to authenticity.
                                        Have you been to Linden Palace? All those gilded walls!

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: yumcha

                                          Funny you mention Linden Place (www.linden-place.net), I was JUST there this past weekend as a bridesmaid. The theme was a masquerade ball which fit the overly tacky surroundings beautifully. But the purpose is to find an authentic Chinese aesthetic in food and environment. Using Linden Place as an example, there is nothing authentically Chinese except for the food and perhaps the chopsticks. It's not a fault but just not Chinese all the way.

                                          I think it's time for the Chinese aesthetic to return!

                                          1. re: cadireon

                                            I guess you're right! I just remember it being so over the top and rediculously fancy!

                                        2. After reading the response by Pupster regarding comments by Ruth Reichl on the Charlie Rose show, we searched the Internet and found an eGullet Forum discussion (http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?s...) on 29 Nov 2005, with Ruth Reichl that gives her interesting views on why there are few high-end Chinese restaurants in NYC.

                                          We had included Reichl’s original remarks on eGullet in our first posting, but the Chowhound moderator deleted our post due to use of copyrighted material, hence if anyone is interested in Reichl’s thoughts, they will have to go to the website listed above.

                                          Reichl’s comment about the esthetics of Chinese restaurants is very accurate. In the Chinese culture, there is a phrase that “the food is the thing” and not the occasion and this probably applies to the décor also. Earlier this year we had lunch at the Imperial Palace restaurant in Flushing, New York, and paid $75 (a rare treat and not done routinely) for an order of Geoduck clam, sashimi style, which belies the very ordinary décor of the Imperial Palace, hence it is certainly not the price that determines whether a Chinese restaurant would be considered high end as stated by many other posters in this thread and the eGullet forum. As other posters have stated, a high-end restaurant needs to have quality food, service, consistency, and décor, and most Chinese restaurants in the NYC Chinatowns, unfortunately, do not meet all of these elements.

                                          There is a fairly high priced banquet hall restaurant in Flushing named “Gala Manor” that has better than average décor, service, and food, but it apparently has out priced itself, since at dinner there one Saturday evening earlier this year, there were only 20 to 30 diners for a restaurant that can seat at least 350 diners. Our guess is that there are insufficient number of Chinese who are wealthy enough to sustain a western style high end restaurant where one would spend typically over $100 per person for dinner on a routine basis. It is doubtful that a high-end restaurant could survive with customers who only go there on special occasions. In the Flushing Chinatown, there are relatively few non-Asians to eat at either the hole-in-wall or the higher priced restaurants, hence it is the Chinese that would have to patronize and carry a high-end restaurant, but from our experience dining at Chinese restaurants in the Chinatowns, we doubt that this would happen. The Chinese in NYC are just too cost conscious where the “food is the thing,” and not the service or décor.

                                          In last year’s Michelin NYC guide (if we arbitrarily assume that any restaurant given a star would be considered a high end restaurant), there were a total of only 37 restaurants in all of NYC that merited one star or more and only four restaurants that were given 3 stars (in the 2007 edition, the number of 3 star restaurants has been reduced to just 3 restaurants), and this is in a city with a relatively very high percentage of wealthy residents who can afford to patronize high end restaurants on a routine basis, hence it is very unlikely that the much smaller number of Chinese in the NYC area themselves could sustain even one high end Chinese restaurant.

                                          Now the question is why isn’t there a high-end Chinese restaurant in Manhattan patronized by wealthy non-Asians? That question is answered by Reichl with her very blunt answer and “Eat Nopal’s” much softer alternative reason.

                                          But as one who is certainly not wealthy enough to patronize any high-end restaurant, Chinese or otherwise, on a routine basis, it would certainly be nice to have a high end Chinese restaurant in a Chinatown that one could go to on special occasions where one could obtain all the elements of a high-end restaurant (excellent food, service, décor, and especially consistency, which is one area where NYC Chinese restaurants are at their weakest), but atlas, it’s not to be.