New UWS Legend Branch: For Best Results, Stay Away From the Spice
Legend (Upper West Side)
258 West 109th Street (off Broadway; map); 212-222-4800; legendrestaurant88.com
Service: Not too friendly, but fast
Setting: Bright lights, white tablecloths covered in paper, most of it stained red from flying chili oil.
Must-Haves: Sour & Hot Sweet Potato Noodles, Beef and Ox Tripe in Chili Sauce, Sichuan Cucumber, Pickle and Fish Stew with Pickled Cabbage
Cost: Appetizers $5 to $9, Mains $11 to $30. Expect to spend around $20 per person. BYOB
It's not that there's no good Chinese food on the Upper West Side. It's a neighborhood that has plenty of what I call "New York Jewish-Chinese American" food, perhaps most typified by the Ollie's noodle shop chain. I gotta admit, I have a soft spot for the starchy hot and sour soups, thick-skinned dumplings, sweet and glossy kung pao chicken, and crispy orange beef of my youth. But when I heard last year that an Upper West Side branch of Grand Sichuan was opening up on 74th and Amsterdam—the northernmost I'd ever seen a Sichuanese restaurant in Manhattan, I got a little excited.
That excitement quickly lost its luster when I discovered that the restaurant was not only unaffiliated with the respectable downtown chain, but that its scallion pancakes were better than its dan dan mien. Really, it was another Upper West Side Chinese American restaurant masquerading as Sichuanese.
More recently, a branch of Legend opened up in the old Rack and Soul space on 109th off of Broadway (may it rest in peace). The Chelsea location of the restaurant is up there with Cafe China as my favorite hot-and-spicy Chinese in Manhattan. This time, it looked like the real deal. The Upper West Side location had nearly the same menu (albeit with slightly higher prices and lacking in the strange Vietnamese tack-on the downtown location has), all the way from the steamed chicken in chili oil to the beef and turnip casseroles. The promise of some truly excellent Sichuan food on the Upper West Side seemed like it was within reach.
So how'd it stack up?
The space itself is perfectly serviceable. Gone is the charm of the dive-y Rack and Soul. Instead, you can expect typical Chinese restaurant styling; bright fluorescent lights, slightly uncomfortable chairs, cheap tables with white tablecloths covered in paper placemats, ready to catch the chili oil that inevitably flies as noodles are slurped and slippery slivers of steamed beef splash into fiery chili broth. It's a far cry from the surprisingly elegant digs in the downtown branch, but not atypical for the neighborhood.
The extensive menu is divided into multiple sections, but you can ignore a great deal of it. Jump over the regular appetizers to the Cheng-Du Appetizers where you'll find things like the Dan Dan Noodles Cheng-Du Style ($5.95), served warm and slightly past al dente with a beguilingly puckering pile of pickled mustard root and a dousing of roasted chili oil and vinegar. Beef and Ox Tripe in Chili Sauce is refreshingly cool and crunchy. The dish is surprisingly mild despite the orange glow of chili oil.
Similarly Tears in Eyes ($6.95)—slippery strips of liang fen bean cake doused in a ladleful of chili oil and a fiery-looking pickled pepper topping—is surprisingly mild in flavor. Unlike the ones you get in Chelsea, which were among my top ten bites of last year, the predominant impression we got here was one of wateriness. The effort needed to pull thin slivers of over-salted, over-smoked flesh from needle-like bones of the Red Rabbit is not worth the payoff.
It took us a while before we really got what was going on.
Sichuan food gets a reputation for being unflaggingly hot and spicy. To the relentless crowd of heat-seekers, the degree of hot-numbing ma-la flavor can make or break the reputation of a Sichuan restaurant. I'd theorize that the chefs have purposely decided to tone down the heat in order to make some of these Sichuan classics friendlier to palates used to the sweeter, milder sauces typical to UWS Chinese fare. It's a dumbing down that doesn't work—once those flavors are lost, the dishes lose their essence.
Yet there is another, tamer side to Sichuan cuisine, less painful in its effects, but no less thrilling in flavor. It's with these dishes, doused in black vinegar, pickled vegetables, and dry spices that the UWS Legend seems to excel.
Sichuan Cucumbers ($5.95) and Famous Sichuan Pickled Vegetables ($5.95) are a good place to start. Salted, crisp, and lightly seasoned with sesame oil, these are the Sichuan answer to the brine pickles you get at neighborhood diners. An essential side dish to add crunch to a meal full of oily, slippery textures.
An intense vinegary broth flavored with peanuts and fermented beans comes to the table in a dark brooding brown. Put away your cell phones and tie on your bibs when you see it making its way through the dining room—the slick sweet potato starch noodles swimming in its depths will make a mess as you slurp them up. The Sour & Hot Sweet Potato Noodles ($6.95) are a fine example of what Sichuan food can be when it's not packed with chilies or Sichuan peppercorns.
Fried Lamb With Cumin ($15.95) is a Northern Chinese Uyghur dish typically made with crunchy stalks of Chinese celery. Somewhere on its trans-global voyage it shed those stalks for the chunks of bell pepper that would be more at home up the street at Ollie's. In either case, the lamb is plenty tender and well seasoned, though it lacks the dry crunch that the best examples of the dish have.
As if to confirm our theory, a duet of traditionally fiery dishes arrives at the table with a disappointing flourish. The best part of the Boiled Sliced Beef in Hot and Spicy Chili Sauce ($13.95) is the bed of punchy pickled cabbage. But you'll have to work your way through the boiled beef that comes spackled in a cornstarch slurry so thick that the individual chunks form a solid raft that reclines listlessly in the bowl.
It seems positively light compared to a version of Ma Po Tofu ($10.95) so gloppy it made me wonder aloud, Did the chef accidentally drop the whole box of corn starch in here? You could actually build little piles of sauce in the bowl that held their shape. Our party of six finished all of two bites of what is typically one of my favorite dishes in the world.
Alright. We get it. Stick to the less spicy fare.
All wrongs were immediately righted when the Pickle and Fish Stew with Pickled Cabbage ($21.95) was dropped off. Easily our favorite dish on the menu, the broth is rich and balanced with a sharp bite from the pickled cabbage and mustard root, tender slivers of fish that are thankfully not-too-cornstarchy, and just enough chilies to add aroma without much heat. The flavors may be unfamiliar, but anyone would instantly recognize this as comfort food at its best.
UWS Legend's Spicy Cellophane Noodle with Minced Pork ($10.95) is far soupier than any version of the traditional Sichuan bean thread noodle and pork dish, which is curious, as their downtown version is a little too dry. Flavorwise, however, it's pretty close to on point with a hint of citrusy, camphorous Sichuan peppercorn (the only real whiff of it we got) and a hot-but-not-burn-your-mouth-off level of chili heat.
Dry Spicy Tasty Chicken with Ginger and Peanut ($14.95) sounds like it'll pack a flavorful punch, but the crunchy nubs of fried battered fried chicken that arrive look far more flavorful than they really are. Still, the dish is tasty in the way that all fried chicken is tasty. Ed described it as "like little chicken McNuggets," while my wife, who is generally a conscientious objector when it comes to eating Sichuan food, said "this is awesome," remarking that it was "like Chinese Popeye's."
As someone who was a huge fan of the original, any changes made in the sequel are bound to be a disappointment. Some of UWS Legend's dishes—particularly the fiery ones—are like the goofy, George Clooney-fied versions of Michael Keaton's brooding and complex Batman, delivered with a smarmy smirk—pretty, but with decidedly less substance.
But judged on its own merits, it's hard to deny that it has a lot going for it. Those vinegary noodle-based dishes were fantastic, and it's certainly the best option in a neighborhood that, if anything, has seen a slow decline in the average quality of its Chinese fare over the last few decades. Maybe it'll be a few decades more before regional Chinese fare is fully accepted, but until then, Legend is a step in the right direction for the neighborhood.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.