Note: WallE closed without fanfare in February 2012. It never caught on, and my 1½-star rating was probably a half-star too high.
I have fond memories of Chin Chin, the upscale Chinese restaurant in East Midtown where we held the rehearsal dinner before my wedding. The marriage didn’t work out. The meal was fabulous.
Last year, Wally Chin, who co-owns Chin Chin with his brother Jimmy, announced he’d be opening a modern Chinese place nearby. It was delayed almost a year while he dealt with health problems, before opening in March.
He calls it WallE (wall–EE), a play on Mr. Chin’s first name. Or, to give the full name, WallE Restaurant & Lounge. The website plays up the “lounge” aspect of it, which might not be a wise choice. There’s a casual front room with a TV behind the bar that’s tuned to ESPN, and a more formal dining room where we were initially seated. There was a loud private party, so we asked to move up front, where not many tables were taken.
The chef, Chris Cheung, has worked at a bunch of Chinese/Asian restaurants, and even Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar. His menu here is Chinese with American inflections: thus, there’s a burger sandwiched between scallion pancakes, and buns with foie gras.
You will eat like a king, for not very much money. “Small plates” (heaven forbid they call them appetizers) are $7–16, “large plates” (entrées) $16–29, rice dishes $12–19, side dishes $4–9. It’s not cheap the way Chinatown is cheap, but it’s not bad at all for a good midtown address.
Portions are huge, starting with a superb bread selection (above left) that, for me, could be dinner most nights all by itself. Likewise a Pu Pu Platter ($10 per person; above right) with an assortment of lobster rolls, dumplings, and rock shrimp.
The aforementioned burger ($16; above left), made from Pat LaFreida dry aged beef, has a compelling, smoky flavor. You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s enormous: I ate just half. Shoestring fries that came with it (above center) were pretty good.
A hefty portion of tender Baby Back Ribs ($23; below left) came with a huge side of macaroni & cheese (above right) that we barely touched.
It is a pity that we had almost no room for a rice dish we shouldn’t have ordered, Shanghai Belly ($12; above right) with three luscious hunks of pork belly and a fried egg. The small taste I had of it was wonderful.
The minimal wine list is adequate, though certainly not a draw on its own. The cocktail menu features the likes of a Mai Tai and drinks that end in “–tini” without the “mar–” prefix. Service was good, but the server ought to have advised us that we had ordered far too much food.
I don’t deduct points for décor I dislike, but I found the space sterile and charmless. The restaurant seats 120, but it has a “big box” feel that might have been fashionable about ten years ago. It is as if Mr. Chin were regurgitating decorating ideas that were cool for 15 minutes in 2002, and that he were utterly oblivious to anything that has happened since.
WallE may ultimately succumb to an identity crisis. The owner wans to appeal to the “lounge” crowd, but the space is far too passé for that to work. The chef hopes to serve modern, “interesting” food (and largely succeeds), but the people who’d be attracted to it might find the lounge vibe off-putting.
WallE (249 E. 53rd Street near Second Avenue, East Midtown)