By Hyon Jung Lee
There’s nothing more fun than a banquet to celebrate a special occasion. A new crop of Asian restaurants all over Manhattan —Morimoto, Buddakan, BuddhaBar and Japonais for instance—create stylish settings for big group dinners. These gigantic Asian restaurants often feature “Modern Asian cuisine,” and offer a chic downtown alternative to their upscale uptown counterparts like Shun Lee Palace or Mr. K’s.
Be forewarned: First, if you want Chinese food in New York, then go to the nearest Chinatown. For better or for worse, Chinese food in China, or even your local take-out Chinese food, is nothing like the stuff they serve in these hip restaurant/lounges. Second, I’d like to point out that in this day and age, dining out isn’t just about the food. That said, my personal favourite venue for some family-style plate-passing is at Chinatown Brasserie in NoHo.
Chinatown Brasserie, which opened in early summer 2006, is among the glossiest upscale Chinese restaurants in New York. The restaurant specialises in dim sum, some regional Chinese “classics with a twist” and American favourites such as Peking duck and General Tso’s chicken. It’s best to round up as many adventurous eaters as possible, so that you can try a bite of everything.
The owners are the team behind the Lever House Restaurant and Lure Fishbar two restaurants which are known as much for their decor as the food. Housed in the gigantic space that was Time Café on Lafayette Street, the Brasserie is replete with cork sculptures, Shanghainese moongate doorways, and floor-to-ceiling silk damask curtains.
The crowd on a recent Wednesday night was as good-looking as the room. At 7:30 pm, the dining room was peaceful, with couples cooing and families negotiating dinner choices. By 10:00 PM, the lights had dimmed, and room was a Mai Tai fuelled celebration. The energy in the room was palpable.
Beer is my favourite companion with Chinese food, but it’s hard to resist Chinatown Brasserie’s frozen Mai Tai ($10), made with white rum, pineapple, cherry brandy and almond syrup, garnished with a sour cherry. Other signature cocktails include a Green Tea Collins ($12) composed of Jasmine tea-infused gin and house-made sour; and the Ginger Dragon ($12), a concoction of vodka, ginger, fresh lemon juice and Peaychaud’s bitters.
After a round of cocktails, nothing is more welcoming than the ceremonious unveiling of baskets of steaming dim sum. Chef Joe Ng creates all dough and fillings by hand, and then cooks everything to order. (Over 20 varieties of dim sum are served at lunch and dinner; brave the brunch on Saturday and Sunday for a more extensive list of dim sum.)
Chef Ng’s Crispy Taro Root Shrimp ($12) arrives at the table in the shape of a bird. I’d planned to take only a bite of the Turnip Cake with Ham and XO Sauce ($7) to save myself for the onslaught of entrees, but forkfuls of the cake and XO sauce mysteriously disappeared off my plate. Even those allergic to shrimp couldn’t resist the Shrimp and Snow Pea Leaf Dumplings ($9), and the Shrimp & Chinese Chive Dumpling ($8).
Chinatown Brasserie prides itself for offering unusual ingredients such as Chinese okra, flowering chives, pickled plums, white asparagus and fuzzy melon to delight the adventurous eaters. More cautious eaters can stick to St. Louis cut Ribs ($14), Roast Pork Fried Rice ($9), and General Tso’s Chicken with ginger and scallion ($17). The Steamed Branzino with ginger, scallion and pickled plum ($27) featured a distinction of flavours, instead of being a muddled mix. Bamboo Shoots, Mushrooms & Baby Bok Choy ($13), were texturally harmonious.
The American desserts weren’t memorable – not sure how many people crave chocolate cake or apple pie - even if it is warm - after a starchy meal at Chinatown Brasserie. Meanwhile, the steamed Malaysian Pumpkin Cake ($5), a steamed sponge cake layered with sweet pumpkin paste tasted only faintly of pumpkin, but the airy tinge of sweetness was a comforting close to the meal.
Before you stumble out onto the street, be sure to descend the stairway by the doorway, if only for a minute. A “lily pad” landing on a large koi pond leads to a lounge, which features a wacky leopard print carpet, and retro fun furniture. It’s a celebration, after all, so why not continue the evening with a digestif, right here?