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Cafe China - Anyone tried yet?

Grubstreet has a short post on the new Midtown Chinese restaurant, Cafe China, that just opened a week ago. You can see the photos of some of their dishes.


On the restaurant's about page: "[...] It's the 1930's. [..] This is Shanghai. It is the place where the East is embracing the West for the first time. [...]" They claim they serve "authentic Chinese food in a 1930's Shanghai setting."

So, it's a Shanghainese restaurant? But when you look at the menu (http://www.cafechinanyc.com/menu.html ), at least half of the dishes are Sichuanese. The numerous red peppers on the menu are giving me a headache. What the heck? What in the world is this restaurant trying to be?

Anyway, I'm kind of curious about it. Might give it a try. Though, I think this place might have an identity crisis. It makes me skeptical.

Cafe China
13 E 37th St, New York, NY 10016

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  1. its definitely a sichuan menu, almost the whole thing is and it's in that area that has become like the sichuan capital of manhattan (szechuan gourmet, lan sheng, mapo, grand sichuan, great sichuan etc)

    sounds like the whole shanghai thing is some marketing about the decor not the food, but who knows

    1. It looks like a beautiful space, and those dishes do look very good (if definitely not Shanghainese). There is however a big tradition of Sichuan food in Shanghai because of the rice trade down the Yangzi from Sichuan - traders and sojourners were common in the city and the food became well-known (and loved). (A number of the best Jiangzhe places in Taipei when we lived there had several Sichuan dishes on their menus, incidentally.)

      12 Replies
      1. re: buttertart

        i hope its good actually, itd be interesting to have a chinese restaurant that actually has reasonable decor

        1. re: Lau

          It would, wouldn't it. Talk about Sichuan Central, man!

        2. re: buttertart

          I sent them an email asking about their cuisine specialty. They confirmed that they're indeed a Sichuan restaurant. Their chef's also from that region.

          1. re: Cheeryvisage

            its fancified sichuan targeted at wealthy caucasions. im sure the chef is very competent, but i would prefer szechuan gourmet

            1. re: AubWah

              But the prices are very reasonable according to their menu, certainly comparable to Szechuan Gourmet.

              Szechuan Gourmet
              21 W 39th St, New York, NY 10018

              1. re: Cheeryvisage

                The proof of the pudding os in the eating, must get there soon.

                1. re: Cheeryvisage

                  The online menu is nowhere near as extensive as SG. Seems they only have one round table as well.

              2. re: Cheeryvisage

                It looks interesting, we will have to try it. Below is a squib allegedly written by the owner about the restaurant:

                My name is Xian and I'm the owner of Cafe China. We are doing truly quality Chinese food because I'm tired of "American Chinese" food such as General Tso's Chicken. We also have a unique vintage Shanghai decor that's rare in New York. We aspire to be a first class eatery in terms of food, service and design. Please come and take a look.

                Cafe China
                13 E 37th St, New York, NY 10016

                  1. re: Cheeryvisage

                    Thanks for posting this! Is ML placing the food on the carpet for the office photo op? :)

                      1. re: scoopG

                        Oh man - surely there has to be a better surface for a photo op in their office than that gray, fuzzy, hasn't-been-washed-in-ages carpet?

              3. In general I found inconsistent use of hot chili and Sichuan peppercorns throughout my meal here and the use of too much sugar.

                Café China has a limited menu compared to most Chinese restaurants. Although there is a wide array of cold dishes (21 in all) there are only 36 entrees and 12 vegetable dishes. Oddly, they offer no Chinese soups except Hot and Sour and Seaweed - that only come with their lunch specials.

                Four appetizers were sampled: Ginger-flavored Bitter Melon, Spicy Beef Tendon, Szechuan Pickled Vegetables and Dan Dan Noodles. The cold Ginger-flavored Bitter Melon was less ginger flavored then advertised. Chopped pieces of ginger were merely sprinkled on top. Something seemed lacking in this dish. Fermented Black beans perhaps? Spicy Beef Tendon had excellent texture and good hot and numbing flavors. Szechuan Pickled Vegetables were not spicy at all and the carrots were haphazardly cut with no two pieces having the same shape. Dan Dan Noodles were disappointing. They were not hot and there was a hint of coriander seed present.

                The two soups delivered to the table were lukewarm and immediately sent back to be reheated. Hot and Sour Soup had too much vinegar, tofu and egg and the Seaweed Soup had very few shreds of seaweed.

                The main Sichuan dishes sampled, Mapo Tofu and Kung Pao Chicken were well short of ma-la seasoning and were too sweet. Baby Ribs in Bamboo Leaves were on the bland side leading me to suspect they were re-using the bamboo leaves, since there was no bamboo flavor imparted throughout the rice. Also, also the five wrapped pieces served were not uniformly shaped. Sautéed Spinach with Garlic was blander still, it tasted as if they were buying pre-peeled garlic pieces.

                Café China is an attempt at haute Chinese fare. The prices are all rounded and there is a full bar with cocktails, wine and beer. This is the midtown Manhattan presentation of Shanghai-style Sichuan cuisine, complete down to the stick of chewing gum that comes when the check is presented. I think there are much better Sichuan options around than Café China.

                Cafe China
                13 E 37th St, New York, NY 10016

                12 Replies
                1. re: scoopG

                  Wow, the Mapo Tofu you described sounds nothing like the one I had when when they first opened. It was fiercely mala when I had it and not sweet at all. Looks like there has been a decline in food quality. A shame.

                  1. re: Cheeryvisage

                    That mapo definitely does NOT sound like what we had in the least. It is a real shame.

                    1. re: buttertart

                      when i had the mapo tofu about a month ago it was very spicy, and not sweet at all...i hope scoopG's experience isn't the current norm...

                      1. re: Simon

                        I was amazed at the level of lunch time takeout business they were doing: two fully dedicated deliverymen including one who used a small motorbike that they park out in front.

                        1. re: scoopG

                          scoopG had lunch, did you guys have dinner? maybe they've got a different lunch chef?

                          i have no idea since i've never been there, but i have noticed that at some restaurants in NY (i.e. differences between lunch and dinner quality)

                          1. re: Lau

                            I think for Chinese restaurants, it is more important the day of the week since the chefs are all working six days a week. In many spots, Monday is that day. I was at China Cafe for lunch midweek, the place was not busy when I arrived but was buzzing when I left.

                              1. re: buttertart

                                Perhaps it was a one off experience but there was enough amiss I thought...

                                1. re: scoopG

                                  It certainly sounds it from your report. We haven't been back, despite the lure of that mapo as we experienced it. Too many restaurants, too few opportunities.

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    Know what you mean. The moving chopsticks, having moved, move on! I will wait for more hounds to visit before checking back in here. There was just too many things wrong on this one visit...

                    2. re: scoopG

                      sidenote re: sugar...when i order Sichuan food, especially kung pao chicken, i usually ask for "no sugar"...while this doesn't work all the time, it usually yields better results...

                      1. re: scoopG

                        I was just there last Thursday for dinner. The two entrees I had, the spicy cumin lamb and the
                        Chunking spicy chicken was very spicy with good mala.

                      2. I didn't have a bad meal here by any stretch, but man, this place needs to be taken down a few pegs. I've already had someone tell this is the best Chinese in the city, though I pretty quickly established this person had never eaten Sichuan before, let along at any of the much better restaurant charging half as much in a two avenue radius.

                        I think it's really just a case of lipstick on a pig, even if that pig is twice cooked pork. This restaurant did a very wise thing in investing in decor, marketing, and named cocktails in order to bring in a Grub Street crowd. Then they did another brilliant thing in not giving people a General Tso's escape hatch, so people have to try authentic Chinese cuisine (and discover they actually LIKE it). People can't go back to their coworkers and complain about the mediocre Americanized Chinese food that places like Lan Sheng and Szechwan Gourmet can't seem to let go from their menus (not saying American-Chinese food is universally mediocre, but some of the midtown Sichuan places have particularly bad versions... even for New York).

                        A few more superficial observations before getting to the food. I've seen more Asian folks in line at a taco truck. It was a busy lunch service, but it was a total white out, dramatically illustrated by the older UES stereotype sitting next to us basically shouting to the room that she couldn't use chopsticks and would need a fork. Dispositive of the food? No. Indicative of the restaurant's success thus far? Perhaps.

                        We had a white dude as a waiter too. Does it matter? Not really. But I think we can all admit that it's a bit atypical for New York Chinese restaurants. Controversial as it may be, I have to ask why? And I'm inclined to conclude that it's part of the conscious attempt to "elevate" the place, which I personally find a bit clumsily done and potentially offensive. Fine if they wanted experienced waitstaff, but our server wasn't very competent. As just one example, after nearly having us sign a waiver about the supposed spiciness of the food he left our waters unfilled for the entirety of the meal. My only guess as to why they hired this particularly individual (and now this is real stereotyping) is because I'd bet quite a few redbacks he spoke Mandarin. He very much seem like the type of young American man you so often find across China, and I felt like I was being set up for a gimmick if I were to engage him in a discussion of the menu.

                        So, the food. We started with the cold rabbit dish. I can't say anything particularly good or bad about this since it's not something I typically order, finding it more an "ossuary" than awesome most of the time, but my friend wanted to order it. The flavor was good, but the expected bones and chewiness were there.

                        We tried the dumplings in chili oil. I thought they were light, and probably would have really enjoyed the filling if I could taste it through the much too sweet sauce/dressing.

                        Dan Dan noodles were forgettable and a bit hard to mix up in the little crock they came in. Utterly lacking in flavor until, again, to echo others on here, too much sweetness was found in the bottom.

                        The Chungking Chicken was perhaps the biggest disappointment as it was entirely too soggy, and had none of the pop of a well done version of this dish. I didn't care for how the chilis were diced up. It likely made the dish spicier, but I never viewed this as a particularly spicy dish. As I was first exposed to it, you dug the chicken pieces out of the whole chilis, finding them infused with the fragrance of their chili nest. This just seemed chopped up into a much clumsier cousin.

                        The cumin lamb was tasty, and likely my favorite thing we had. It had a notable gaminess I enjoyed, and was a pleasant spicy from chili heat. All of the dishes I tried were quite light on any sort of numbing Sichuan peppercorniness.

                        We got the pea shoots as a vegetable, which were fine. They didn't seem very well trimmed, so sometimes it was like we were eating pea branches, but they tasted fine, and I suppose you could spin them as "rustic." However, I'm not sure what justified the 15 dollar price tag other than pretense.

                        $15 pea shoots really are at the heart of criticisms of the place. I think any number of cities in America could do much worse than a Cafe China popping up, but I don't see how it makes any sense paying extra money for food on average inferior to other nearby options (not even bringing Outer Boroughs Chinese into the equation).

                        I may try it again sometime for dinner and see if that alters my opinion, but for now I'd suggest they spend less money on prints evoking 1930s Shanghai and more effort spent on trying to capture 21st Century Chengdu. I'll see if another visit changes anything, but for now I'd say the Empress Dowager has no clothes.

                        Cafe China
                        13 E 37th St, New York, NY 10016

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Mr Porkchop

                          Sorry you had a mediocre experience...i haven't been there in a few weeks, but i've been very happy w/ the food and when i was there last, i saw many groups of Chinese eating there (i'd say at least 50% of the clientele on that night)...

                          and fwiw, i have spent time in 21st Century Chengdu :)

                        2. I've enjoyed my meals at Cafe China though the menu is more limited than some of the other Sichuan places. Nice room though.

                          The New York Times just gave the restaurant two stars.

                          14 Replies
                          1. re: peter j

                            Great review, and I totally agree. I love this place.

                            1. re: peter j

                              2 NY Times stars?!

                              ... The food is great, but I think they are 1star at most. I'm so not used to this new Pete Wells scale.

                              1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                I think the 2 star rating was due, in part, to the interior design..

                                1. re: H Manning

                                  The interior design doesn't even match the cuisine the restaurant serves! Ugh!

                                  1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                    I actually liked the interior design (though I have no idea what a Sichuanese room should look like)., It's a pleasant change of pace from the Lan Sheng, Szechuan Gourmet, or Grand Sichuan aesthetic :-)

                                    My only issue is that the portions at Cafe China are rather small for the price but I can live with that.

                                    1. re: H Manning

                                      I'm happy for them though. I hope their service can keep up with the influx of customers the review will bring them. I haven't dined in there in a while (been getting delivery instead), I remember their service staff having a lot of trouble keeping up with a full house.

                                      1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                        The review also mentioned another Sichuan restaurant called Land of Plenty which just opened near Bloomingdale’s. Have you been there yet Cheeryvisage?

                                        1. re: H Manning

                                          LoP looks really good...going to try this wk and report back.

                                          1. re: H Manning

                                            No, I haven't been to Land of Plenty yet. I'll keep this place in mind when I'm in that area in the future.

                                            1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                              It seems LOP has just copied Szechuan Gourmet's menu. Whether the kitchen is up to snuff is another matter. Rectangular boxed shaped dining room like Cafe China. I actually walked out with my three dining companions after waiting 20 minutes to be served. Then the waiter - an older Chinese-American fellow ("call me Lou") blamed me!

                                            2. re: H Manning

                                              I finally went to Land of Plenty for dinner 3 days ago. Really enjoyed it. Everything was tasty and the service was excellent. I'd be happy to return whenever I'm in that area.

                                              1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                                Hmm, thanks for the report. Maybe a new thread for LOP, with pics? I'll try it soon.

                                                1. re: H Manning

                                                  There is a thread already: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/821568 . I'll post the pics there once I get them off my camera.

                                                  I had a snarky comment in that thread saying "Why do we need another Sichuan restaurant?" While I still think Sichuan cuisine is starting to be over-represented in the city, I admit that Land of Plenty seems to be a great restaurant based on my one recent meal.

                                            3. re: Cheeryvisage

                                              i'm happy for them too...it's prob my fav Chinese restaurant in Manhattan these days...

                                              re: stars, i don't really value the NY Times star system, as long as the number exceeds expectations and gives them more customers, i think it's a good thing...

                                  2. Calling it "uncompromising Sichuan food" is quite a stretch.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: scoopG

                                      You speak the truth, sir.
                                      ETA: I also don't find Legend "amazing".

                                      1. re: buttertart

                                        Official Vintage Café China 1930 Shanghai starlet posters now on sale in Chinatown!

                                    2. We’ve been meaning to get to Café China ever since Pete Wells wrote his 2 star review back in May. So many restaurants, so little time. I think part of the reason for our tardiness is it’s location on 37th St., just off Park Avenue. I worked in that area off and on for years in the Pan Am/Met Life building. On a weekday afternoon it bustles with office workers on their lunch break. On a warm Saturday night in early September 37th St. was desolate.

                                      A few years back much was made on other food boards about the challenging location of Alex Urena’s Pamplona on East 28th St. You know what? East 28th is the Champs Elysee compared to East 37th on a Saturday night. The streets were wet with a light drizzle and the whole scene looked like a night shot of Vienna in “The Third Man.”

                                      Surprise. Café China was half full when we arrived around 8:00PM and a steady stream of customers arrived during our meal. Good for them. They deserve the business.

                                      The atmosphere is pleasant – there’s a bit of style to the room.



                                      But pictures can be deceiving. Take a look at the photos that accompanied Wells’ review.



                                      I want that Times photographer to take pictures of me. She ought to be working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.

                                      On to the food. As Wells mentioned, the menu is somewhat shorter than comparable restaurants. I have no problem with that in theory as long as the choices that remain are attractive. For 95% percent of diners the options at Café China should be ample. Because I am a pain in the ass I was looking for some new dishes that aren’t available elsewhere. For the most part I didn’t see them. Most people won’t think this is a problem.

                                      On to the food, as usual, by the numbers.

                                      B10 - Dan Dan Noodles - Spicy noodles with minced pork chili vinaigrette


                                      Pretty on the plate, disappointing in execution. There was zip in the noodles but not quite the depth of flavor in the better versions of this dish. (It’s a hike but I strongly recommend the version served at Little Pepper in College Point. Lan Sheng’s is really good as well.) What really disappointed about CC’s version was the gumminess of the noodles. Five or six years ago you could get away with this. Now people expect better.

                                      B12 - Spicy wonton in Szechuan peppercorn vinaigrette


                                      Now that’s more like it. Top notch.

                                      C3 - Chungking Spicy Chicken - stir fried diced chicken with red chili peppers


                                      Another winner. The chicken was crisp and juicy with a nice amount of heat. A handful of places produce versions that are equally good but nobody does it better.

                                      C34 - Sautéed Chicken Fillet - Spicy chicken breast, Chinese broccoli, pepper corn, dried chili pepper


                                      It looks great on the plate but it’s somewhat bland. It needs some more heat and more complexity. It was certainly carefully made. To be fair to them this was billed as a mildly spicy dish. They use the old convention of those little pictures of chili peppers on the menu to indicate the heat level. My GF’s Chungking Chicken was billed as a 3, this was a 1.

                                      The thing is, I could live without the heat but a dish can be on the mild side and still be interesting. For the most part this wasn’t. I suspect they have this on the menu for timid diners who later get to boast that they went to an authentic Sichuan restaurant and had the spicy chicken.

                                      Did Wells get this place right? Is it a 2 star that’s comparable Bruni’s **s – Spicy & Tasty and Szechuan Gourmet? If I had to rate them on the basis of a single visit I’d give them a one but I saw enough good things that they certainly deserve another visit. And lets keep things in perspective – if this place opened in my neighborhood I’d be ecstatic.

                                      *Extra Points*

                                      In Googling for Wells’ NY Times review I found that Adam Platt reviewed Café China last fall. He said generally complimentary things (take that with a grain of salt – in the same review he got hot and wet for Red Farm) but what really got me was this –

                                      “RedFarm is bankrolled by that ubiquitous restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba), but the concept belongs to the great czar of New York’s increasingly moribund Chinese-food scene, Ed Schoenfeld.”

                                      Adam, that is fucking nuts. Really. I suppose that’s what happens when you hang around with Fat Ed Schoenfeld. It's like attempting to orbit a super massive black hole. If you're not careful you get sucked into its gravity well and below the event horizon. Before you know it you're saying stupid stuff like "moribund Chinese dining scene" and calling Fat Ed the "Great Czar." Great Czar my ass. Remember, this is the same Ed Schoenfeld who brought us Chop Suey Looey's Litchi Lounge.

                                      But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Pete Wells speaking to the same topic in his Café China review – the state of Chinese food in NYC –

                                      “For ma la maniacs, these are glorious days. Once you leave Chinatown, good Sichuan food may be easier to find in Manhattan than good Cantonese food. In Chelsea is the amazing Legend; Land of Plenty opened near Bloomingdale’s; there are Grand Szechuans all over. The 30s alone have Szechuan Gourmet, Lan Sheng, Mapo Tofu and Café China. With so many expert chile-wrangling chefs, surely there’s space for a restaurant where a casually cool retro interior can be home to Sichuan’s enveloping heat.”

                                      Thanks Pete. At least someone is on speaking terms with reality.

                                      6 Replies
                                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                                        Glad you tried Cafe China...my go-to dishes there are: cold cucumber, cold bitter melon, fragrant fish filet w/ green pepper, mapo tofu, kung pao chicken, sauteed green beans, and sometimes tea-smoked duck (though that was so-so last time, as was the service)...

                                        1. re: Simon

                                          Their bitter melon there is outstanding. Always a must-order for me.

                                          I also dig the fish and pickle stew. I loved it so much that I tried making it at home. Unfortunately Cafe China's version is so much better.

                                          1. re: Miss Needle

                                            Fish and pickle stew and their ma po...yum.

                                            1. re: buttertart

                                              Oh yeah, their mabo tofu is also really good. It may be my favorite version I've had yet.

                                        2. Going here tonight with friends. Didn't remember it having such mixed reviews but too late to change now. Here's what I've gathered from this thread for dishes to get:

                                          Spicy wonton in Szechuan peppercorn vinaigrette
                                          cold cucumber
                                          cold bitter melon
                                          fragrant fish filet w/ green pepper
                                          mapo tofu, kung pao chicken
                                          sauteed green beans, and sometimes
                                          tea-smoked duck (i just enjoyed mission's but guessing their different)
                                          cumin lamb

                                          Anything I'm missing or anything on here a mistake? Thanks!

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: lucyj

                                            I order from Cafe China regularly. My favorite dishes from there are the Chengdu wontons, mouth-watering chicken, mapo tofu, and pickle and fish stew.

                                            Enjoy your meal!

                                          2. Massively downhill...worthy of an official DOWNHILL ALERT i think...

                                            The last 3 or 4 trips (over six months) had been not-great...those times the food was decent/uneven but the issues were more about lousy service (including one night in a party of four where one of our group was, unbeknownst the servers, a friend of the owner and she was embarassed by the poor service)...

                                            But my last meal there was astoundingly bad food-wise...the cold dishes were delicious but anything cooked was simply awful: seemingly cooked on low heat and tasting like microwaved junk with lots of cornstarch, no heat, no char, nothing...i politely asked a server about this and she fessed up that, sure enough, there is a new chef as of 2 months ago and also a staff of new sub-chefs/cooks/etc: it shows...

                                            I'm disappointed as i sung the praises of this place so many times during their first 6 months of operation, and it's disheartening to now have to put them in the no-go column...i will not be back...

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Simon

                                              I was also disappointed with the lackluster spicing during a recent lunch there.