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Chinese cuisine in New York

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Ruth, I've been really enjoying your posts and thank you for having this conversation with us.

As many folks here know, Chinese food is very important to me and has been since my early childhood. I grew up in Manhattan and used to enjoy Fukienese (as we used to spell it) food at Foo Joy; dim sum at Nam Wah (where I also played with the owner's son); Manchurian hot pot at a long-gone restaurant right around where Goody's is now at Chatham Square; and the food of my local "Mandarin" restaurant, Chun Cha Foo on the Upper West Side. The first Sichuan-style restaurant I remember being really good was between 109 and 110 Sts. on Broadway, on the second floor of a block-long building (I forget the name), though I suspect it was still a far cry from what's available now. Nowadays, with the tremendous growth in the number, variety, and quality of Chinese restaurants in New York, I tend more toward Spicy & Tasty in Flushing, Grand Sichuan (St. Marks and the Midtown location), Congee Village, and Yeah Shanghai, but I have had the pleasure of enjoying Taiwanese, Chao Zhou, and Fuzhounese food.

Perhaps you'd like to reflect on the changes in Chinese cuisine in New York (and, if you like, throughout the country), and mention some more of your favorite Chinese restaurants in New York.

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Ruth, I've been really enjoying your posts and thank you for having this conversation with us.

As many folks here know, Chinese food is very important to me and has been since my early childhood. I grew up in Manhattan and used to enjoy Fukienese (as we used to spell it) food at Foo Joy; dim sum at Nam Wah (where I also played with the owner's son); Manchurian hot pot at a long-gone restaurant right around where Goody's is now at Chatham Square; and the food of my local "Mandarin" restaurant, Chun Cha Foo on the Upper West Side. The first Sichuan-style restaurant I remember being really good was between 109 and 110 Sts. on Broadway, on the second floor of a block-long building (I forget the name), though I suspect it was still a far cry from what's available now. Nowadays, with the tremendous growth in the number, variety, and quality of Chinese restaurants in New York, I tend more toward Spicy & Tasty in Flushing, Grand Sichuan (St. Marks and the Midtown location), Congee Village, and Yeah Shanghai, but I have had the pleasure of enjoying Taiwanese, Chao Zhou, and Fuzhounese food.

Perhaps you'd like to reflect on the changes in Chinese cuisine in New York (and, if you like, throughout the country), and mention some more of your favorite Chinese restaurants in New York.

I guess the first Chinatown place I went to was Nam Wah, where we were taken by some Chinese colleagues of my parents when I was about 4. I was utterly taken by the idea that you just ate and they counted the plates to give you the bill, and completely hooked on the idea of dim sum. But then, of course, in 66 the immigration law changed and we had this flood of new Chinese cooks into America and everything became more exciting. I think my next big epiphany was Hunan in San Francisco; I didn't know it was a parody of the cuisine, and I loved the heat, the garlic, the force of the food.

Then, in the late 70s I did a long piece in New West, with three Chinese people, about regional Chinese food all over the state. It's still one of the things I'm proudest of in my career. The guys included the now-famous director Wayne Wang, who was then working in a Chinatown community center, and the now-famous architect Fu-Tung Cheng. Fu-Tung's mother was very helpful in this too. And I really learned about Chinese food, and how subtle it could be, and how varied it was from region to region.

Then I moved to LA, and there I really learned about the differences in the food.

Which is all a long way of saying that after living in California, it's hard to get very excited about Chinese food in New York. We just don't have the kind of monied, sophisticated Chinese eaters who support great restaurants. So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about local Chinese restaurants. They just don't have the same quality as those on the other coast - or those in Canada - where most of the big Chinese money resides.

I know, too long an answer. Short answer is that I'm addicted to the chiles in black beans at Grand Sichuan, and the Au Zhu chicken when it's made with the freshly killed birds. I love the soup dumplings at Goody's. I love the boiled shrimp at any of the places that have them live in tanks (Ocean Garden). I think Ping is a terrific chef who doesn't usually do what he's capable of doing. And if I want a great banquet to impress a Chinese visitor, I'll call up Michael Tong at Shun Lee, who can put on a breathtakingly good spread if you call ahead and don't care what it costs. He'll bring in live eels, he'll do impressive set pieces (Pandas at Play), he'll get fish maw and giant shark fins and soak kidneys in ten changes of milk until they're as soft as clouds.

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.... it's hard to get very excited about Chinese food in New York. We just don't have the kind of monied, sophisticated Chinese eaters who support great restaurants.  So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about local Chinese restaurants.  They just don't have the same quality as those on the other coast - or those in Canada - where most of the big Chinese money resides........

Ruth:

I remember reading a story by you years ago in the Times on Chinese haute cuisine.

Considering that Michelin Guide didn’t give any star to the Chinese restaurant in the city and there is only a handful of one star Chinese restaurant in France, what do you think will take for Chinese food to be taken seriously?

French/Michlin bias aside, what is it that prevent people from wanting that high-end dining experience that the Chinese cuisine, I think, is capable of providing.

Thanks

William

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.... it's hard to get very excited about Chinese food in New York. We just don't have the kind of monied, sophisticated Chinese eaters who support great restaurants.  So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about local Chinese restaurants.  They just don't have the same quality as those on the other coast - or those in Canada - where most of the big Chinese money resides........

Ruth:

I remember reading a story by you years ago in the Times on Chinese haute cuisine.

Considering that Michelin Guide didn’t give any star to the Chinese restaurant in the city and there is only a handful of one star Chinese restaurant in France, what do you think will take for Chinese food to be taken seriously?

French/Michlin bias aside, what is it that prevent people from wanting that high-end dining experience that the Chinese cuisine, I think, is capable of providing.

Thanks

William

This is a subject I could go on forever about: Basically, Americans are racist about Chinese food. We just don't think it should be as expensive as western food. When my friend Bruce Cost had a great Chinese restaurant in SF, one of the reviews actually said, "What makes him think we should pay as much for Chinese as French food?" And he was buying from the same purveyors as Chez Panisse.

But this will change, and I suspect very soon. As the Chinese become increasingly dominant in the world - which they are, and will be - our attitude about their cuisine will change. Today the great Chinese chefs all stay in Asia, where they're paid better and get respect. Why should they come here? But as we go there, and taste their food, we'll start to give it hte respect it deserves.

Another thing, of course, is that the esthetics of Chinese restaurants are completely different than those of Western places. And we'll have to get used to that. The most expensive restaurant I've ever been to was in Hong Kong - and it was bright, loud, cold, no romance at all. But the food!!

By the way, did you read the piece we ran last August about the chefs from Cheng Du and their attitudes about food in America? It was fascinating. They were utterly contemptuous of our best efforts. A mirror image of our own prejudices.

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Considering that Michelin Guide didn’t give any star to the Chinese restaurant in the city and there is only a handful of one star Chinese restaurant in France, what do you think will take for Chinese food to be taken seriously?

French/Michlin bias aside, what is it that prevent people from wanting that high-end dining experience that the Chinese cuisine, I think, is capable of providing.

This bigotry is not limited to Michelin. There are currently no Chinese restaurants in New York carrying three or four stars from the New York Times. There are a handful of two-star Chinese restaurants, but the number is small when you consider the abundance of Chinese cuisine in this city. One of those at the two-star level is Shun Lee Palace, of which the Times website writes, "No restaurant in New York City can produce better Chinese food." I believe it was Ruth Reichl who awarded two stars to Shun Lee, although I'm not sure if she wrote that sentence. I haven't dined at Shun Lee Palace recently, but I visit Shun Lee West fairly regularly, and I think a reasonable case could be made that it is a three-star restaurant.

The problem comes from three directions. Critics fail to dole out appropriate recognition to the better Chinese restaurants. Diners don't think a Chinese meal should be expensive. And restauranteurs are afraid to take the risk of opening a Chinese restaurant that charges Le Bernardin's prices.


Edited by oakapple (log)

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This is a subject I could go on forever about: Basically, Americans are racist about Chinese food. We just don't think it should be as expensive as western food. When my friend Bruce Cost had a great Chinese restaurant in SF, one of the reviews actually said, "What makes him hthink we should pay as much for Chinese as French food?" And he was buying from teh same purveyors as Chez Panisse.

Ms Reichl

As you know I'm from France, hence my lack of familiarity with you. I have to say in reading your responses in these threads I am floored! You're awareness, insight and honesty are refreshing. I am egalitarian too.

I am interested in hierarchies and debunking them. Funny, I posted in this very forum about my French 1/2 roast chicken costing $16.95- $18.95 versus a Mexican chicken costing $5-$6 both made with "common chickens". The responses were "of course if it's French it should cost more".

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I agree that Americans are too stingy about paying for great Chinese food (and other great Asian food for that matter). That said, you yourself gave one reason why they are willing to pay more for great western cuisines: authentic Chinese restaurants place less emphasis on decor (and service for that matter). And aren't those things a major cost component at top-rated restaurants?

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When I first became familiar with "Chinese Food" during the mid 1960's in Hong Kong I was quite surprised and awed by the difference between the actual facts, conceptions and reality.

Almost no visitors to Hong Kong ever actual ate at or were ever seen at the what were considered the best Chinese Restaurant's because they were much more expensive to eat at for any foreigners.

These were places that only served live seafoods, fowl, game all prepared to order or pre-ordered for single table service (10/12 Guests].

It was assumed that the soup course would range from $80.00 per large bowl to over $1,500.00 1965 dollars each. Live Fish about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds began at $1.50 per ounce to over $30.00 per ounce for Horsehead Garoupa.

Live Lobsters, Prawns as large as 1 1/2 pounds each and other shell fish such as Abalone where live started at $8.00 to $12.00 per ounce live and often 5 times higher if dried. Coconut Crabs began at $4.00 per ounce, weighing from 5 to 8 pounds each.

This did not include the vegetables, special rice, condiments plus the labor for the special Chefs in preparing the meal.

Teas could cost as high as $125.00 per Traditional Brewing Cup, such as the few gathered by trained monkeys.

Deserts could be Japanese Musk Melons costing over $100.00 each or Melons from the Gobi Desert or Persia as well as Tiny Seeded Lychee's from a specific tree in China.

The alcoholic beverage of choice was Cognac "Fine" or better.

Meals averaged higher then $1,000.00 per table minimum and they were often reserved weeks in advance. The average place had about 30/50 tables, several were larger.

I remember taking Craig Clayborne to a meal at one of these places during his second visit to Hong Kong when he exclaimed it was the most expensive meals he had ever eaten anywhere.

With inflation I understand that there are now Restaurants that average $500.00 to $1,000.00 per person for dinner in Hong Kong.

If you investigate the several popular low keyed Chinese Restaurants in NYC especially Flushing, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto or Vancouver Canada there are unadvertised places serving comparable meals most to only the Chinese community mostly for Banquets and private parties.

When I order live or special made to order dishes at many Chinese Restaurants in metropolitan areas for a table I expect to pay from $55.00 to about $100.00 per person.

At some of the same places you can also order from Column A, B, C, or D fixed set menus that are quite reasonable or full everyone up at Dim Sum for under $10.00 per person.

Whats interesting about eating Chinese Food is that often at the same Restaurant you can eat regularly at modest prices, but also indulge at more exorbitant meals.

This is not very common in westernized restaurants.

Irwin

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...authentic Chinese restaurants place less emphasis on decor (and service for that matter). And aren't those things a major cost component at top-rated restaurants?

This is a common perception that I found when I lived in the US - that for Chinese food to be authentic - it had to be somehow down market. I can list off a number of beautiful Chinese restaurants in the Vancouver area were service, decor, and the food is of the highest order. The difference is that there is a high concentration of reasonably monied Asians living here.

Sometimes though - a Chinese restaurant will underestimate the western palate and steer people away from what they feel may be 'challenging' dishes. And especially at some very high end authentic places - language becomes a real barrier.

Ms. Reichl - how do you think the cultural divide can be bridged?

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...authentic Chinese restaurants place less emphasis on decor (and service for that matter). And aren't those things a major cost component at top-rated restaurants?

This is a common perception that I found when I lived in the US - that for Chinese food to be authentic - it had to be somehow down market. I can list off a number of beautiful Chinese restaurants in the Vancouver area were service, decor, and the food is of the highest order. The difference is that there is a high concentration of reasonably monied Asians living here.

Sometimes though - a Chinese restaurant will underestimate the western palate and steer people away from what they feel may be 'challenging' dishes. And especially at some very high end authentic places - language becomes a real barrier.

Ms. Reichl - how do you think the cultural divide can be bridged?

I think that the first step in bridging this divide is for Americans to understand how little we know about this huge subject. Chinese food is the most diverse, and I think most sophisticated, food on the planet, and most of us have very little experience with it. The truth is that few Americans have a taste for - or an appreciation of - the high end of the cuisine. CAntonese cuisine has a lot to do with texture - shark's fin, fish maw, bird's nest - which is not something most Americans like very much. Sichuan food is about the nuances of flavor, not just heat, but about the kind of contrast in ma-la. You go north and you hit the wheat part of the country, and then there's the whole Chinese-Muslim cuisine. Before we can begin to appreciate any of this, we have to learn about it. And we've got a long way to go.

But as more and more of us do go to the kinds of very high-end Chinese places you find where there is a wealthy expatriate community - Silicon Valley in this country, Vancouver in Canada - that will change. But I expect that fact that fewer and fewer trained Chinese chefs have any desire to leave Asia won't help things. We're mostly going to have to go there to experience the greatness of the cuisine. I don't think this will happen any time soon.

On the other hand, there's a rumor that Alan Yau might open a Hakkasan in New York, and if he does, and if it's succeeds, that would be a great leap forward for this city. We don't have anything of that quality here.

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