Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Has Midtown Trumped Chinatown?

Over the last couple of years Manhattan's Chinatown restaurants, in general, seem to have taken a decided downturn in quality. Perhaps it was coming for some time, but it has become especially apparent recently.

My last couple of meals at Ping's, which for several years was the best Hong Kong-style seafood place in the city (the Times gave it two stars), were rather unsatisfactory. They still pulled off the simply prepared live fish and shrimp dishes, but anything with a more complex sauce had become a major disappointment. You can get some wonderful seafood and vegetable dishes at Great N.Y. Noodletown, but the place is rushed and claustrophobic, so I can't bring groups there. Congee Village, on Allen Street, may be one of the best Cantonese overall, but I've found them to be somewhat uneven. I will say that both Noodletown and Congee Village prepare baby bok choi in ways that make a compelling case for it being one of the world's great green vegetables.

In addition to Chinese, some of my Southeast Asian standbys have gone way downhill. Nyonya, once my favorite Malaysian place in Manhattan, now serves bland, mediocre food. Happily, their Brooklyn branch still shines. Nha Trang Centre, once a superior Vietnamese spot, is now a dog. There has been less deterioration at Pho Viet Huong, a place I've frequented for over twenty years, but they seem to be slipping too.

All in all, I just don't think of Chinatown as a great food destination these days.

Perhaps it's due to a change in demographics. Though Chinatown always served a transient, tourist clientele, the fact that middle-class Chinese people are now more likely to settle in the outer boroughs may have tipped the balance. Perhaps, as with Little Italy, if you're not relying mainly on repeat customers you worry less about quality and go for the quick buck. Also, most of the recent Chinese immigration to New York has been from Fujian Province. There are a number of Fujianese restaurants on East Broadway, but I haven't tried any recently. Fujianese is not one of the great cuisines of China. It's rather unrefined; in food terms, Fuzhou is to Hong Kong or Canton as Bratislava is to Paris.

I've been having much better luck with Chinese food in midtown. Sichuan cuisine, which really can't be found in Chinatown, is well represented in Midtown. Grand Sichuan, on Ninth Avenue, would itself be something to write home about if there were not several better choices. I've written glowingly several times about Wu Liang Ye. A second visit to Szechuan Gourmet convinced me that it's in the same league as Wu Liang Ye. While my benchmark dishes of dan dan noodles, ma po tofu, and tea smoked duck didn't dethrone the versions at Wu Liang Ye, they were all superb. Several dishes were transcendent. The steamed pork dumplings in hot sauce, topped with a paste of minced garlic, were spectacular. The crispy lamb with chili pepper, which had a breading that was seasoned with cumin (undisclosed on the menu), was quite simply one of the best things I've eaten all year.

Phoenix Garden, another place I had written about earlier, is probably as good as any Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown, and it's not that much more expensive. These days many of Chinatown's better bets are Shanghai-style. But the best of them, like Shanghai Cafe and New Green Bo, can be cramped and hectic. I much prefer the more relaxed atmosphere at Evergreen. It's somewhat pricier, but the food is excellent.

Perhaps Chinatown quality goes in cycles, and we're just in a culinary recession. Or perhaps I just haven't found all the great new places. Or perhaps I need to get off my ass and travel to Flushing more often.

Phoenix Garden on UrbanspoonSzechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon


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