Wu Liang Ye II: Hounded
My comment that Wu Liang Ye is “the nonpareil top Sichuan restaurant in New York today" elicited a response from no less than the top dog himself (though he calls himself the Alpha Hound), Jim Leff, Chowhound’s founder. “Please try the branch on 86th street, and see if you still feel that way,” he wrote. “As far as I'm concerned, the latter is one of the greatest restaurants in NYC. I've been tracking the chef for many years, and am completely mesmerized by his cooking.”
“Tracking the chef”! This guy means business. He tracks chefs and restaurants the way a Wall Street analyst tracks stocks or a racing enthusiast tracks horses and jockeys. I pricked up my taste buds. This was a challenge that had to be met.
I arranged a meal for five at the 86th Street branch. I was the first to arrive, and I started chatting with the waiter. “I’ve been to the restaurant on 48th Street a bunch of times, but this is my first time here,” I told him.
“Same food here. Same chef,” he replied.
“I heard from somebody that the food here is even better, and that the chef is different” I said.
“Ah. General chef work out of 48th street. General chef brother work here.” I didn’t tell him that brother and brother were about to go mano a mano.
I also found out the meaning of Wu Liang Ye. I already knew that the restaurant was named for a famous Chinese liquor, but I didn’t know what the words meant. Now I know. Wu Liang Ye means five-grain liquor.
My guests arrived and I explained that they were all part of the Wu Liang Ye challenge. For the most part I ordered some of the dishes I love most at 48th street, as a benchmark.
The excellent pan-seared dumplings were indistinguishable from the excellent ones at 48th Street. The dan dan noodles, which easily make the short list of New York noodle immortals, were spectacular, but not noticeably different from those at 48th Street. Incidentally, I misleadingly referred to this as a cold noodle dish in my prior piece. It's actually served warm at Wu Liang Ye.
The ox tongue and tripe with roasted chili-peanut vinaigrette was a big hit with this group as it was with the prior one, but I found the 86th Street version a bit spicier and less multi-dimensionally flavored than the one at the sister branch, perhaps a bit short on the vinegar.
The camphor tea smoked duck was incredibly moist and delicious, though a bit fattier and less crisp-skinned than the 48th Street version (which might have given the meat itself the edge).
I found no noticeable difference between the two versions of ma po tofu. Either one would qualify as the best in the city.
The two biggest disappointments were the sauteed spinach with garlic and the prawns wah bah (a/k/a wor bar), with toasted rice cakes on a sizzling platter. I had mentioned in the previous report that vegetables are not Wu Liang Ye’s strong suit, but I always like to have at least one green vegetable at a Chinese meal. The spinach, unfortunately was over-salted. The prawns wah bah was a misstep on my part since it’s not a Sichuan dish, but I hadn’t tried one in years, and there was, coincidentally, a recent Chowhound discussion about the dish, which had put a bee in my bonnet. The prawns themselves were huge, fresh and excellent, but the sauce was heavy and lackluster.
So, overall, I was unable to find any real differences that would recommend one branch of Wu Liang Ye over the other. I wondered what I was missing that Jim Leff finds so clearly superior about 86th Street. I questioned my perceptions. Is my palate less sophisticated than that of the Alpha Hound? Is Jim capable of distinguishing subtle gradations that are lost on me?
Ultimately, regaining my self-esteem, I decided there were two possible explanations: either the 86th Street branch was having an off night, which led it to be merely excellent rather than transcendent, or Jim has had less experience with the 48th Street branch and was not giving it the credit it deserved. I’ve only been dining at Wu Liang Ye for about two years, so there may have been improvements at the midtown branch that have not made Jim’s radar.
Whatever the explanation, there are other reasons to recommend the 86th Street branch. It’s less hectic than midtown, and the staff is friendlier. In addition, the prices are a bit cheaper. It is not, however, three blocks from my office.