Near the Empire State Building

Cafe China

The young husband-and-wife team behind the new midtown restaurant Café China are also attempting to rework what they describe as the classic New York “assembly-line Chinese food” experience, albeit in a different, possibly more radical way. Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang (he’s from Shanghai; she’s from Harbin, in the north) have decorated their modest, dimly lit restaurant with artifacts (Art Deco mirrors, pheasant screens, etc.) from the glory days of thirties Shanghai. When you call for a reservation, your name is written on a card and placed on your table, just the way they do at the finer restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing. The man in the kitchen, He Shaoyan, is a classically trained cook from Sichuan, and his menu (duck tongue with peppercorn; “salivating frog”) has been designed to reintroduce traditional Chinese cuisine to generations of New Yorkers weaned on carryout and, yes, General Tso’s chicken. I never enjoyed a bite of “salivating frog” at Café China, but my serving of bang bang chicken was flavorful and gristle-free, and the dumplings we sampled (try the floppy, soft-skinned pork wontons sunk in chile oil) had a fresh, home-style quality. Unlike many Sichuan joints around town, the Chungking spicy chicken here isn’t overwhelmed with so many chile peppers that you can’t find the chicken, and the lamb in the spicy cumin lamb is cut in tender chunks and fried with sweet onions and stalks of coriander that you can taste in your nose. There are other unexpected pleasures at this satisfying little restaurant (try the braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens, and the mouth-tingling ma po tofu), but the most unexpected thing of all might be the strangely palatable desserts, which include scoops of cooling mandarin-orange sorbet served in a frozen, hollowed-out orange shell, and wedges of rich chocolate-ganache cheesecake, which tastes like it’s been imported from one of the better hotel kitchens in midtown. — Adam Platt

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