Friday, May 12, 2006

Wu Liang Ye II: Hounded

After I wrote about my visit to Wu Liang Ye on 48th Street, I posted an abridged version of my report on Chowhound. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Chowhound, it’s the preeminent restaurant message board on the internet. Chowhound regulars tend to be extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and opinionated; more than just food-obsessed, many of them are clearly food-possessed. At its best the Chowhound community is an international restaurant espionage network, an amazing source of intelligence, and one that is unlikely to land me in a quagmire. At its worst there can be a pack mentality among posters at times, and woe betide he who strays from the accepted Chowhound wisdom.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very enlightening, Pete. I feel as if I was there.

7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim Leff has lots of fine qualities but one of his weaknesses is that he falls in love with chefs and not restaurants. It skews his perspective and his romanticism distorts his judgment. You saw a prime example of it with Wu Liang Ye UES. He forgot to taste the food.

Sripraphai, which turns out fine meals with regularity, never gets a nod from him because the kitchen works as a *team* rather than having a single Magic Chef.

Oh well ... no one's perfect.

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are you calling woh bah, wah bah? Is that how the people of sichuan pronounce it?

9:03 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Wah bah is the way it's spelled on the menu.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Letters said...

And it's not a Sichuanese dish...neither are most of the items on the menu.

I've never seen a Sichuan restaurant cook with this little huajiao.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wu at 48th Street is my favorite Chinese Restaurant, and I have eaten at many. Here are some home runs you may have overlooked: you said Wu was weak on greens, so tighten your seatbelt: "string beans and bamboo shoots with yibn city" is one of my absolute favorite dishes, as a main course, anywhere, and I don't even like string beans! "chicken with capsicum," a very spicy dish, will leave your palate on fire and in heaven, and "pan-seared tofu" is fantastic - great flavor, great texture. I think their cold sesame noodles are the best. Meanwhile, I loved you review of Wu @ 86th - I haven't been there, but I'll go next week on your rec. Thx.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been to both and I have to say that 86th street is without parallel. I live on the UES and work in midtown so I thought I was in luck. the midtown location was a big dissapointment, just sort of regular chinese.

The #1 dish at 86th for me is the sesame noodle vinagrette, and the green bean dishes. I had the filet mignon and spinach yesterday which was unusual in that it is the first time I have had a chinese beef dish with top quality aged beef rather than the usual tough flank steak variety one would see elsewhere.

I am in full agreement with Jim Leff whomever he might be. I will probably never take anyone to the midtown location again.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hello, I just came upon your blog accidentally while searching for information on Yunnan food. Really enjoy reading your entries. Wu Liang Ye is one of my most fav restaurants but I have not been there in about 10 years. Thanks for all the good info on where to get a good meal. :)

10:32 AM  

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