13 East 37th Street, New York, NY 10016 (between 5th and Madison; map); 212-213-2810 cafechinanyc.com
Service: Pleasant and efficient
Setting: Beautifully styled
Must-Haves: Spicy Diced Rabbit, Chungking Spicy Chicken
Cost: appetizers $5 to $13, mains $8 to $25 (most under $18)
What is it with great Sichuan restaurants opening in unlikely Manhattan neighborhoods recently? In November, we headed to Chelsea, where a run-of-the-mill Vietnamese restaurant had turned into the excellent Legend, at which we loved the Chongqing chicken and tofu-like "Tears in Eyes" and the liberal use of chili and Sichuan peppercorn on a number of dishes. And now in Midtown, we've found plenty to love about Café China.
First of all, there's the space itself, adorned with mirrors and screens and portraits that evoke an earlier era of Shanghai, from where hails Xian Zhang (who opened Café China together with his wife, Yiming Wang). A beautiful glass backed bar, upholstered chairs, lamps and curtains; there's enough to keep you looking around for ages before your meal arrives. But the menu could keep you occupied, too, pages of enticing dishes long. It reflects its Sichuan chef in the kitchen, who turns out excellent versions of many expected dishes, and a few surprises as well.
We loved the Spicy Diced Rabbit ($9), for instance, despite a minefield of tiny pointy bones; the rewards—juicy nuggets of rabbit with a hot and smoky chili vinaigrette—are well worth the effort. Ditto the cold appetizer Bang Bang Chicken ($9), where an intense sesame flavor dominates the shredded and super-moist chicken, very mild compared to some other appetizers. And while duck tongues can verge on rubbery, Duck Tongue with Peppercorn ($10) was perfectly moist and tender; the predominant flavor was actually more like scallion oil rather than peppercorn, but that's fine by us.
On our visit, Dan Dan Noodles ($6) arrived ever so slightly overcooked, but not unforgivably so, especially considering how good their roasted chili vinaigrette is. It also plays a strong role in Pork Dumplings in Chili Oil ($6), although the dumplings were almost candy-like in their sweetness; we could do without the excess sugar in the filling.
As for the entreés? The best were exemplary, including the dry-fried Chungking (Chongqing) Spicy Chicken ($15), executed almost perfectly. It's extraordinarily aromatic with plenty of roasted chilis, Sichuan pepper, fat slices of ginger, and sesame seeds. As served, it's crisp and dry on the outside without an excess of batter or starchiness, with a juicy interior that pops when you bite into the tiny nuggets. This is one of the best versions we've had.
We were almost as fond of the Spicy Cumin Lamb ($19). It's great when that has a nice crispness to the edges of the lamb bits, but we're okay missing that as long as the flavor delivers, which China Café's lamb does in spades. Plenty of musky cumin with a hint of chili heat and the fresh crunch of cilantro stems, both coating tender lamb stir-fried to a perfect medium rare.
Other entreés may have been imperfect, though that's not to say they weren't tasty. In Double Cooked Pork with Smoked Tofu ($15), slices of smoked tofu make an interesting addition to this dish of simmered-then-stir fried pork belly with spicy long green pepper, but it's no substitute for real wok hei. The smokiness imparted by a hot, carbon steel wok was missing from this otherwise excellent dish.
Ma Po Tofu ($11), on our visit, was less than perfect due to tofu that was just too firm. Plenty of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn are a step in the right direction, but without enough rich, fermented broad bean and minced beef flavor, the sauce remains one-dimensional. And while the Tea Smoked Duck ($19) boasts plenty of smoky flavor and faultlessly moist and salty flesh, the duck is marred by un-rendered, rubbery skin.
Still, those quibbles are largely technical, minor concerns with a vast and varied menu that gives both adventurous and less adventurous diners plenty to read and an awful lot to enjoy. Café China bills itself as "East embracing West"; but we're just happy to see Manhattan embracing more excellent Sichuan.