13 E 37th St (5th Ave and Madison Ave, Midtown East)
Fatty Kat Eats: Baby Cucumbers, Chunking Braised Fish in White Broth, Snow Pea Shoots with Garlic
My newfound love for Cafe China is a little premature. I've only eaten there once and didn't try nearly enough dishes, but my instincts tell me this place is a force to be reckoned with. That one Michelin Star plus those two New York Times stars don't hurt my cause either...
Cafe China is located in a part of Midtown that no one cares about, you know...right where the lines blur with Murray Hill. The restaurant was designed to resemble colonial Shanghai in the 1930's and 40's with Chinese pinups and art deco finishes along the walls. And although the decor rings Shanghainese, the menu consists mostly of Sichuan food. The diners are a grab bag of sorts, with tourists, hipsters, businessmen and women, Chinese people, first dates and hip older people all in one place.
We were in the mood for something homey and familiar so we started with the Baby Cucumbers. I love this simple dish because it packs an incredible amount of flavor in what seems to be very few ingredients. The crunchy cucumbers were lightly marinated in a garlic oil with just a bit of salt. The garlic started a big party in my mouth, and understandably, there was no kissing during the after party.
To you, the Savory Tofu with Celery Shoots may not inspire much. But to me, it reminds me of a dish I've enjoyed hundreds of hundreds of times. Unfortunately, this version was way too salty. Despite the heavy hand, the firm dried tofu and Chinese celery were fresh and delicious.
Amen for the Chunking Braised Fish in White Broth. This was by far my favorite dish of the night. The buttery braised fish swam in a creamy white broth accented with cilantro, scallions and chilis. This bowl of heaven was made even heartier with soft tofu and bean sprouts. You know when it's so damn good you shut up and just eat? Yea, that happened.
I wanted this Mapo Tofu to be the one. It was really good. But it wasn't my tofu soulmate. The spices were incredibly flavorful and borderline numbing, but the tofu was too firm for our tastes. I grew up playing on the soft tofu side of the game, so it's impossible for me to switch sides at this point.
People who don't eat and enjoy their greens. I don't get it. Veggies are amazing, including the Snow Pea Shoots with Garlic at Cafe China. If you didn't know already, these are pretty fancy in the veggie world--coming in at a respectable $15 per plate. Honestly, sautéed snow pea shoots taste and cost the same at all Chinese restaurants as long as the goods are fresh. This version was tender, crispy (at the stems) and wonderfully garlicky. I also love snow pea shoots served with boiled egg, salted egg and century egg!
I wanted so badly to love the Sweet Potato Pancakes. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that spark, that chemistry. The sweet potato part was totally on point, but these bad boys were far too oily to even stomach (not to say I didn't). I had to take a napkin to these flying saucers numerous times to justify eating them.
Bad. Awful. Thousand Layer Cake. Why would a Chinese restaurant serve a seemingly European style Napoleon cake? Let alone a really cold, dense (without purpose) and flavorless one. I thought I was ordering one of these rather than the crap below. I grew up eating steamed thousand layer cakes in Shanghai, and this one was beyond disappointing. Shame on the cooks! Someone in the kitchen should know better.
Clearly, this post has been infected with tons of nostalgia and feelings, but isn't that what food is all about? I didn't think Cafe China deserved its one Michelin Star based on my short experience, but I'm sure there are more amazing dishes to make up for the few bad ones. It's food that real Chinese people eat and cooked in a way that real Chinese people would appreciate. So, if you're anything but…well…Chinese, I'm warning you right now! This may not be the place for you. It's not all about vats of oil and neon-colored glazed meat. Cafe China is legit with a hipster twist.