3 Midtown Chinese
I had been laboring under the misconception that Phoenix Garden, on East 40th Street, was the phoenix-like reincarnation of the Chinatown Phoenix Garden of days gone by (a Calvin Trillin favorite), but I was set straight by the staff. Regardless, this Phoenix Garden is a rara avis–a Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant outside of one of New York’s Chinatowns. Dim sum items are available as appetizers, and the shu mai were pretty respectable. The oyster casserole with bean curd and roast pig was excellent. It is a favorite dish of mine, but I hadn’t had it in a number of years (the best I ever had was at a defunct Chinatown place called Tindo, a funny little triangular place at a three-way intersection). The casserole featured the freakishly large oysters that I’ve only had in Chinese dishes. I was a bit disappointed by the salt-baked squid, as the breading was thicker and crispier than I prefer (Great NY Noodletown has a light, almost Platonic version). It’s nice to have a real Hong Kong/Cantonese option in midtown, and the prices are not much higher than at comparable places in Chinatown.
Having been bowled over by Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street, and impressed by the one on East 86th, I had to try the third branch in the triumvirate, on Lexington between 39th and 40th. Based on my benchmark sample of dan dan noodles and ma po tofu, this location is decidedly inferior to the other two. Both dishes seemed spicier and less subtle than at the sister branches. In retrospect, I don't know if they were spicier, or only seemed so because the strong red chile flavor was too one-dimensional. If there were Sichuan peppercorns in these dishes, I didn't notice them. The ma po tofu had a heavier sauce with less meat than at the other branches, and an unpleasant over-saltiness rather than a brown bean accent. The dan dan noodles did not have enough of a vinegar component to balance the flavor of the hot pepper. If this had been the first branch I had tried I might have become the Wu Liang Ye booster I am today.
Much better was Szechuan Gourmet, on 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The ubiquitous cold sesame noodles, like those at Wu Liang Ye on 48th, were satisfyingly spicy and relatively light–unlike the leaden peanut-butter monstrosities one finds in most “Szechuan” restaurants. The dry sauteed long green beans were mildly spicy and had an appealing nutty, roasted flavor. Interestingly, there were a number of dishes that are not on the menu at either Wu Liang Ye or Grand Sichuan, Manhattan’s main Sichuan contenders. The house special baby rib pot featured a fairy light brown sauce with a nice blend of star anise and Sichuan peppercorn as primary spices, though the ribs themselves were a little scant in the meat department. The waitress tried several times to give us an escape clause from the “Beef Chen-Du Style (Very Spicy).” The dish had four peppers next to it on the menu, the spice equivalent of a XXX rating. The waitress said, “Very spicy, you sure you want?”
“Yes, no problem. That’s fine.”
Still, she returned several minutes later to give us a last chance. “Chen-Du beef. Very spicy. It’s OK?”
It was very OK. My lunchmates were a bit worried when they saw the dry crushed pepper coating on the beef slices, but actually it wasn’t as spicy as the ma po tofu at the Lexington branch of Wu Liang Ye, and the flavors were much more complex. The dish featured a nice mix of vegetables, including enoki mushrooms.
Another good midtown south choice, though one I haven’t been to for a while, is Evergreen Shanghai, at 10 E. 38th.