Han Dynasty Rocks the First Stage Then Loses Its Beat
90 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10003 (b/n 12th and 13th; map); 212-390-8685; handynasty.net
Setting: Bright, bustling room that draws crowds and waits.
Must-Haves: Wontons in chili oil, dan dan noodles, husband and wife beet.
Service: Gregarious and well-informed. They're proud of the place and they show it. Cost: Starters $7 to $10, mains $13 to $22.
Compare To: Legend, Cafe China
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. Starters are very strong but main dishes don't live up to the hype.
When a new Sichuan restaurant opens in Manhattan, I listen. Far from being the Sichuan dead zone that it was even a decade ago, New York has become a virtual checklist of regional Chinese cuisines with the likes of Legend and Café China leading the Sichuan charge.
Han Dynasty is a little different. The first New York branch of proprietor and Philadelphian Han Chiang's chain of a half dozen dazzlingly successful restaurants (five in Philly and one in Jersey), the restaurant rolled into town with what seemed like a busload of groupies already in tow. Our wait for a table on a week day night one month after opening still stretched to nearly an hour. You're not used to that kind of a line at a restaurant that serves you with plastic cutlery.
Good news first: the opening act at Han Dynasty is stellar. Their Dan Dan noodles ($7.95) were talked about even before their doors opened, and with good reason. The slippery noodles tossed in housemade chili oil with a touch of sesame paste and a nest of stir-fried minced pork and pickled Sichuan vegetables is the benchmark for how this dish should be served everywhere. It comes with more than a bit of theatricality—in what seemed to be a well-practiced move, our server even asked me whether or not I'd like to get my camera ready for a photo of the action. With noodles this good, the shtick doesn't wear thin; Han Dynasty should consider installing a spotlight.
If the noodles are the brash opening number, the Cold Pork Belly ($9.95) in garlic sauce is the slow groove that lets you pick up on the nuances of that chili oil a bit better. The paper thin slices of pork soak in the oil, revealing layers of smoke, spice, sweetness, and even an almost raisin-like rich fruitiness.
More excellent use of that chili oil: the Wontons ($6.95) with their thin, slippery skins and sweet pork filling are great when they come out hot and still fantastic when they've been sitting on the table for half the meal (I can even confirm that they taste great cold, out of the fridge at 2 a.m.). Those wontons are better than the very similar but more cloying and less meaty Dumplings in Chili Oil ($6.95).
If you stick to that first half of the menu, you'll be treated to what might be the finest version of Husband and Wife Beef ($9.95) I've had, not to mention a full-on telling of the story of its invention by an enthusiastic waiter. If you've ever thought of dabbling in tripe but have been afraid to try, this is the dish to do it with. Simultaneously cool and hot, fresh with cilantro and the intense camphor of Sichuan peppercorns, it's incessant, percussive in its flavors; It drives a beat that makes you helpless to reach for more. This is food with flavor you can tap along to.
The cold rabbit cooked with peanuts and chili oil ($9.95, a favorite of Chinese ladies, our waiter tells us) is the first truly excellent version of the bone-riddled dish I've had in Manhattan, and the Dry Pepper Chicken Wings ($9.95) give even Mission Chinese's wings a run for their money in terms of crispness and sheer fiery heat.
I foresee the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup ($8.95) becoming a winter staple. A spicy beef broth tempered with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns that's home to a tangle of slippery noodles, bamboo shoots with the crisp snap of young asparagus, and chunks of tendon-riddled beef cooked until it just holds together on the spoon but melts away with a push of the tongue against the roof of your mouth. This is the kind of dish that will be so recognizable for its excellence that it should become expected institutional knowledge for any East Villager.
It was blindingly good stuff. So blindingly good that I failed to notice a few of the warning signs at the tables around us—the sheen of a cornstarch-thickened sauce here, and scattering of fussily brunoised red and green bell peppers there. I should have noticed them, but I didn't. I should have noticed that instead of the tightly structured, well-thought-out, protein-and-sauce combinations on the menu of, say, Cafe China, Han Dynasty's has you first choose from 14 styles of preparation before then picking your protein. Could that dry pot-style sauce really match with intensely flavored lamb just as well as it does with delicate rabbit? Do I really want my fish served in the same hot sauce as my beef?
It's a warning sign I missed, and frankly, it's easy to get excited with a cursory scan of the second half of the menu—Pickled chili fish? Long pepper pork? Dry-fried beef? Heck, I haven't even seen legit dry-fried beef on a menu since New Taste of Asia closed in Brookline a decade ago, unless you count that Sichuan joint we stopped at in Hong Kong during honeymoon, but I've been informed by my wife that nothing I did during our honeymoon counts.
I eagerly ordered. Cumin-crusted lamb. Dry fried beef with its promises of dry peppers, celery, and Sichuan peppercorn. Double cooked pork belly with hot peppers, chili oil, black beans. Beef strips stir-fried with shredded long horn peppers. Delicately battered salt and pepper shrimp—a long time favorite of my sister.
Then the main courses started arriving—first that Dry Fried Beef ($15.95). I gingerly withdrew a crisply curled strip of beef from the pile on the plate, like a deep fried game of Pick Up Sticks and brought it close to my nose, waiting for that waft of chili to rise up and smack me in the face. It was like waiting for the lead singer to walk up to my nosebleed second balcony seat to perform a personalized ballad. I can still imagine how glorious it would have been had it ever arrived.
But no. Nothing. No intense aroma, no burst of flavor, heck, not even a fleck of salt to season the beef with. All we got was a tangle of bell pepper strips, a few slices of ginger, and a whole lot of disappointment. Is this the same chef that created that effortlessly brilliant rendition of oxtail and tripe? Are we still in the same restaurant?
Dish after dish arrived with similar results. Beef with Long Oepper ($15.95) with a mildness and inoffensive sweet soy flavor that would have been more at home at Shun Lee Palace. Gloppy Kung Pao Chicken ($12.95) with no hint of its trademark ma la mouth-numbing spice. Salt and Pepper Shrimp ($19.95) that were "delicately battered" so clumsily thick that the soft, bready coating was actually bulkier than the overcooked shrimp it housed, all with no hint of salt and pepper that was identifiable only by appearance. And bell peppers. Bell peppers everywhere, in nearly every dish, as unavoidable as the smell of fish in Chinatown.
Perhaps my disappointment was intensified by the unreasonably high expectations reading the menu gave me. It was like hitting a Paul McCartney show, finding out that he has magically recaptured his 28-year-old voice, falling off my seat with the awesomeness of the first act, then finding out that the second half would be Beatles covers performed by the cast of Glee.
There were a few redeeming stars on the table—Double Cooked Pork Belly ($13.95) that despite a few too many leek greens was as tender as could be, deeply seasoned with fermented soy beans. A version of Mapo Tofu ($11.95) that was a little too thick with cornstarch but managed to balance the numbing heat that was so lacking from the chicken.
Cumin-Crusted Lamb ($15.95)—the Northern Chinese specialty—was disappointingly soggy and greasy on one visit. I visited again to order it at the behest of a trustworthy source and found it to be far superior, though that time it was the Dry Pot Style Pork ($15.95) that was greasy and one dimensional with salt and chili heat dominating the flavor.
It's telling when tender, gorgeously purple and orange Eggplant in Garlic Sauce ($11.95) with its very mild seasoning was one of the most enjoyable dishes on the table. It would have been an afterthought had the rest of the dishes lived up to their promise. A large tray of greasy, battered catfish in a stodgy sauce had none of the promised punch from pickles arrived and left the table in almost identical states after a few exploratory probes were made by our table of eight. A washed up guest star who accidentally walked on at the wrong show and tried to pass it off as part of the act before shuffling off stage.
The disappointments of the second act were almost enough to banish the memories of the brilliance of the first. Almost, but not quite. From here on out I'll stick to the cold appetizers and the noodle dishes. Luckily, there's nobody at Han Dynasty preventing you from walking out during the intermission.
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.