Editor's note: What's the best way to dine at New York's finest restaurants on the cheap? Book a table for lunch. Our man about town, Nick Solares, will be checking out some of the city's finest fine dining lunch deals.
380 Lafayette Street, New York NY 10003; map); 212-533-7000; http://www.chinatownbrasserie.com/
Service: Positively glacial
Setting: Downtown loft meets opium den
Compare to:Shun Lee Cafe, Ping's, Jing Fong
Must Haves: Peking Duck spring roll, Chicken and shrimp lollipop, bok choy and mushroom dumpling
The Deal: Dim Sum: 4 selections, $15; 6 selections, $19 (includes choice of soup or noodles)
Previously: The Art of the Lunch Deal: Bouley
In light of its proximity to the Chinatown, it may seem preposterous to dine at Chinatown Brasserie (which is confoundingly located in Nolita) and consider it a bargain to pay $15 for four selections of dim sum—even if that includes soup or cold noodles. That sum could likely feed two at any number of perfectly fine restaurants in Chinatown.
That is, if economy is your chief concern. If on the other hand you are more concerned with eating something ethereal—and that would otherwise cost almost twice as much—then $15 or $19 does not seem to be so much.
And ethereal is exactly how I would describe Joe Ng's dim sum. It is delicate, beautiful food that is as compelling to the palate as it is to the eye. In fact, I think it is the highlight of the menu at Chinatown Brasserie. While the dim sum is distinctly Cantonese and has an air of authenticity—Ng hails from Hong Kong—the rest of the menu offers a more diluted vision. Some dishes seem chosen as much for their familiarity (pork spare ribs, for example) as for their flavor. But ultimately, it is the dim sum that keeps me going back to Chinatown Brasserie.
Meals there tend to get expensive, which is why lunch is such a great deal. You choose between 15 selections of fried or steamed dim sum, as well as a choice of soup or cold sesame noodles. Some of the selections will be quite common, such as bite-sized pork buns that go down like sliders, or flawlessly executed spring rolls with wrappers so crisp that they shatter, but it is the avant-garde offerings that I find irresistible. Take the lollipops—crisp balls of minced chicken and shrimp battered and fried to a golden crisp—or the bok choy and mushroom dumplings, translucent parcels bulging with earthy flavor.
It is not all without flaw. The service has always been slow, even at lunch, when the place might be almost empty. The waitstaff seems to spend fleeting moments in the dining room, leaving you alone for protracted periods of time. The dim sum might take a bit longer to prepare than the stuff that sits in steam plates, but a little assurance from the waitstaff goes a long way, lest you think you have been completely abandoned. The time issue is, of course, of particular concern at lunch.
But the overall experience, long wait and sporadic service aside, is positive. The dim sum that springs from Ng's fertile imagination is beautiful, sometimes challenging, but most importantly, it is delicious.
Sesame noodles. Unlike the suspiciously peanuty-tasting cold noodle dishes you might find at cheaper places, the sesame noodles at Chinatown Brasserie have a genuine sesame flavor and a pleasing bite to the noodles themselves.
BBQ duck egg rolls—dip these in hoisin sauce for an experience evocative of Peking duck.
Pork buns. In the same way that a slider can be considered a reduction of the hamburger to its ideal form, the mini pork buns here perfectly capture the pleasure of a larger bun, but in a compact form. It might be small, but it is big on flavor.
Chicken and shrimp lollipops. These are difficult to hold abck from; I was tempted to order four of these alone.
Bok Choy and mushroom dumplings. These little dumplings with delicate, translucent skins brim with earthy flavor.
Lamb dumplings. The only disappointment, as the lamb was a bit on the rubbery side; perhaps I should have eaten them first.