Canteen 82: Quality Chinese from a Dumpling-Espresso Bar?
467 Columbus Avenue, New York NY 10024 (b/n 82nd and 83rd; map); 212-595-4300
Service: Reasonably attentive and helpful
Setting: Long, wide space that holds a big communal table in the front
Must-Haves: Shanghai Dumplings, Peking Duck Buns, Roast Pork Buns, scallion pancakes
Cost: Around $25/person
Grade: A for the dumplings, B+ for the scallion pancakes, B for everything else
With the Upper West Side's long tradition of neighborhood Chinese restaurants threatened with extinction, perhaps it is time for a new model for success. Perhaps that of Canteen 82, whose awning says it all: Espresso, Noodle, Dumpling. The blackboard inside adds to the intrigue: "Join Us For Breakfast," which features omelettes and Texas French Toast.
All these foodstuffs can make it difficult to get one's bearings, but my desire for a solid Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side led me to the Chinese items on the menu. After all, I reasoned, there is no shortage of places to get coffee and french toast and muffins—both on the Upper West Side and elsewhere—but boy, could we use a good dumpling and noodle house.
I first went to Canteen 82 after Florence Fabricant said the scallion pancakes there might be the best in New York—and they were good, but certainly not worthy of the title Flo bestowed on them. I then went back for take-out—the pork and crab soup dumplings survived reasonably well, as did the pan-fried pork dumplings and the steamed and fried peking duck rolls. Shrimp with Chinese broccoli were meaty and properly cooked, and caramelized chicken was a very sweet and oddly satisfying version of sesame chicken.
With the results of my initial forays inconclusive, I brought Robyn Lee and Shanghai-born Chichi Wang to complete my Canteen 82 investigatory committee. Our game plan: skip the espresso bar and the Thai and the Japanese dishes, and concentrate on the Malaysian and Shanghai food, because that's where the restaurant's two chefs hail from.
Chichi really knows her way around xiao long bao soup dumplings ($6.50 for six, $12 for twelve), and after one bite, she declared Canteen 82's some of the best she's had in New York City—better, way better, than the ones at Joe's Shanghai. The dumpling wrappers were thin enough and quite delicate, and the broth had tons of pork flavor. Though the bottoms of the dumpling wrappers grew soft from the heat of the pork broth, the skins held up when we lifted the dumplings out of the steamers. The ground pork filling was appropriately dense and fatty. Chichi, who's eaten her weight in soup dumplings in Shanghai, was pleased with the noticeable sweetness of the pork filling, which is usually too salty or bland without the addition of a little sugar. Given the cohesiveness of the center, it was clear that the kitchen had taken the time to thoroughly mix and toss the ground pork before putting it into the wrappers.
The soup dumplings boded well for the pan-fried and steamed dumplings ($5.95), and our faith was rewarded. The steamed pork dumplings were pretty swell, and both the golden-brown pan fried pork and shandong (a mixture of chicken, shrimp, and pork) dumplings were even better. Again, the dumpling wrappers were reasonably delicate, thin enough, and not at all gummy.
While most buns are either steamed or pan-fried, these pan pan buns (a Peking duck with crispy bits of skin, and delicious fatty pork; 3 for $6) appeared to have been first steamed, then pan-fried. The result: a bottom that was crispy though not hard, with skins that were far thinner than the typical buns we're used to eating from Hong Kong or Northern China. The skins couldn't have been better, with a pleasantly yeasty taste and a light texture. Inside, the fillings were again sweeter than most. Both plates of buns came with a sauce made with a sweet bean paste (tian mi jiang) that's common in Chinese cuisine.
Scallion pancakes ($4.50) were crisp and greasless all three times I ordered them, but as you can tell from Robyn's photo, they didn't have the requisite flaky layers the last time I was there. They were seriously tasty, nonetheless.
Vegetable Singapore rice noodles ($12) were homey and satisfying but hardly exemplary.
The wok dishes were a notch above typical neighborhood Chinese food, but were not quite in the same league as the dumplings.
Caramelized Sesame Chicken ($12) with steamed broccoli was sweet enough to be dessert, but I would probably order it again. Healthier and tastier is the wok chicken with steamed broccoli ($12). The chicken had a nicely seared exterior but was quite moist within.
Shrimp with Chinese Broccoli ($15) came lightly and deftly sauced with ginger and soy flavors, and the shrimp themselves were meaty, properly cooked, and not at all iodine-y.
Sichuan Slow Cooked Beef ($13) came with carrots, new potatoes, mushrooms, and jalapeno peppers. The peppers didn't supply much heat at all, but the chunks of beef were falling part tender. On the other hand, coconut curry beef ($13) with potato and Thai basil was drier and tougher, and the coconut curry sauce was rather muted—like many of the sauces at Canteen 82.
Lemongrass seafood in a galangal coconut sauce had one juicy head-on shrimp and and a number of unexciting sea scallops. Alas, the galangal coconut sauce also suffered from a case of the blahs.
I don't think Chinese-pan-Asian-coffee bars are the next big thing on the Upper West Side, or anywhere else for that matter—and I don't think the scallion pancakes would beat every other in New York. But for now, Canteen 82 is a great neighborhood place for my dumpling fix. And don't we all need one of those?