When you think about Chinese cuisine in Manhattan, excluding take-out, two pictures come to mind. The first is the expensive high-end places like Chin Chin, Shun Lee, and Mr. Chow, which get practically no love from the food community. Just mention them on Chowhound and wait for the sparks to fly. At the other extreme are the respected authentic places like Szechuan Gourmet and Oriental Garden, where décor is bare-bones or non-existent, the service hurried and even discombobulated.
Café China, which opened in Murray Hill in early September, looks like an attempt to bridge that gap. No one would call it ultra-fancy, but the narrow, deep space is soothing to look at: decked out in 1930s charm with antique chandeliers and sconces; comfortable banquettes and diner chairs; dark wood tables mostly without tablecloths; old Shanghai posters on the walls, painted powder blue; and understated Chinoiserie dappled around the room.
There are lacquer chopsticks (replaced after every course), but paper napkins; reservations are accepted. You could have a romantic meal or a business dinner here, without paying the extortionate prices (for often forgettable food) of a place like China Grill or Philippe. Heck, even the website feels comfortable.
It’s run by a husband-and-wife team from China, Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, with a classically-trained Sichuan chef, Xiaofeng Liao, in the kitchen.
The menu doesn’t stint on heat, if you want it, and you’re welcome to test your stomach with the likes of beef tendon, diced rabbit, jellyfish, duck blood, “salivating” frog, and freshwater eel. Traditional take-out staples, like Double Cooked Pork and Kung Pao Chicken, are barely more than footnotes. Orange-Flavored Beef and General Tso’s Chicken are nowhere to be found.
It’s not a short menu, but it doesn’t extend to hundreds of items, as these places sometimes do. Most appetizers are less than $10. Entrées top out at $25, but there are many less than $20.
The two dishes I tried were in retrospect too similar, both swimming in a pool of hot bright-orange chili oil, but that’s my fault, not the restaurant’s. Both would probably have been better to share, but I was there alone.
Spicy Beef Tendon ($9; above left) with peppercorn and chili peppers was satisfying and sinus-clearing. The sheets of tendon had the consistency of taffy. Whole Tilapia in Spicy Miso Sauce ($22) was a messy and unsubtle pleasure. The fish was soft and came off the bone easily.
After that, a refreshing bowl of Lychee Sorbet (left), to get that intense chili taste out of my mouth, was practically mandatory.
You wouldn’t mind lingering in this pleasant spot, and with the space nowhere near full on a Monday evening, they would be happy to have you. Alas, there’s no liquor license yet, so there is little incentive to hang around. I assume that’ll be rectified eventually.
There are folks on the food boards that practically live on places like this. I’ll let them decide, in due time, where Café China ranks in the city’s Chinese pantheon. I will certainly go back.
Café China (13 E. 37th St. between Fifth & Madison Avenues, Murray Hill)