My first visit to Cafe China, the Michelin-starred Sichuan restaurant, was an affirmation that somebody was still paying attention to decor and design in the execution of Chinese food, and that decent Chinese food could be found in this more gentrified setting. Unfortunately, a more recent trip back did not yield quite as rewarding results, and this, combined with a horrendous visit to sister restaurant China Blue, has soured somewhat my impression of what ex-bankers Xian Zhang and his wife, Yiming Wang, have been trying to accomplish.
Without delving too deeply into this, I’m all for the elevation of Chinese food – but the food must remain unassailably good, and there are some weaknesses to Cafe China, particularly given its insistence on omitting MSG from its recipes and the dilutive existence of Shanghainese dishes on the menu. As much as MSG is used as a crutch in Chinese cooking and as deleterious as it can be to a Chinese food experience, if you do leave it out, you better come correct with the flavors, and in particular, the intensity of flavor.
During my first meal at Cafe China, they did a splendid job across the relatively narrow spectrum of savory and spicy that our meal covered. For the sake of one in our party, we didn’t get anything too spicy.
We started with a few small bites: pork dumplings in chili oil, mung bean jelly with chili paste, jellyfish with scallion pesto, and some dan dan noodles. Here the lack of MSG was evident, where you would find it in abundance in Chengdu dives and grand restaurants alike. The flavors are correspondingly muted, but fresher. Where there is chili involved, the discrepancy is less noticeable. And the scallion pesto is good enough to not need any flavor enhancement whatsoever. The dan dan noodles were also tasty, though not otherwise outstanding, with my preferred choice of flat noodles. For the mains, we shared a dish of fragrant fish filet (with green chilis and julienned ginger, in a bed of light soy sauce) and a beautiful plate of tea-smoked duck. The fish filets were tender and fresh, with the chilis lending a barely-perceptible perfume rather than a visceral spice.Excellent tea-smoked duck is hard to find, even in places like Shanghai, where often they are disappointingly under-seasoned or over-fried or haphazardly served up like Peking duck with some steamed buns and hoisin. Cafe China’s version was lavishly smoky, with a fatty, caramel layer of skin around each piece. I enjoyed the duck by itself so much that I didn’t really even bother with the accompanying hoisin sauce.In the wake of a vastly underwhelming dish of the Jiang Bei Shui Zhu Yu (braised fish in red soup), supposedly one of the spicier items on the menu, I think sticking to moderation in terms of spice level is a better bet at Cafe China – after all, the owners are not from Sichuan (the mister from Shanghai, and the missus from Harbin, neither of which is known for gustatorially exhilarating flavors). Even the mapo tofu is decidedly middle-of-the-road. I’m not going to assume that the kitchen is purposefully restrained, but it seems that way, with nothing to suggest that they’d send out a plate showered with chilis (which, sometimes, is what I want at a good Sichuan place). At some point, I will give the chicken dishes (and the cold diced rabbit) a try and report back.
That said, the dining room is relaxed, well-lit, and comfortable, with thoughtful details of decor, and from what I hear the drinks menu, with its various homages to Chinese culture (the ‘Lust, Caution’), is well-done. Eating at Cafe China is a pleasurable experience that comes with little of the grin-and-bear-it mentality that one often steels oneself when venturing into Chinatown or Flushing.