June 20, 2012
I discovered Szechuan Chinese food in 2009 during an epic meal at then newly-opened Lan Sheng. It was an eye-opening experience; the flavors and dishes completely reshaped my view of Chinese cuisine. In the three years since, Manhattan has seen an influx of new Szechuan joints all over the city; Hot Kitchen in the East Village (get the Mei Shan Beef), Legend in Chelsea (get Mapo Tofu and white fish w/ cabbage), Land of Plenty on the Upper East Side (get crispy lamb w/ cumin), and Mission Chinese, which traveled all the way from San Fran to the Lower East Side (get everything). Cafe China, located on 37th street just off Madison Ave in the no-man’s land of Midtown East, opened in fall 2011 and has been on my to do list ever since, especially since it received a 2-star review from Pete Wells in the NY Times in May. I was rolling solo Monday night and in the mood for mapo tofu with ground pork – my barometer of a great Szechuan restaurant – and decided to check out Cafe China.
Mapo Tofu can easily go wrong if it’s too oily or there’s too much corn starch, but Cafe China’s version ($11) disappointed in a whole new way. First off, it came with no meat in it, something I’ve never seen before. Not a problem; the server was happy to add pork, free of charge no less. The real issues were the bowl and the sauce. Usually mapo tofu is served in a deep bowl, allowing the hearty sauce to cover and imbue the tofu with flavor, making the dish into a delicious stew. At Cafe China, the bowl was shallow and the sauce was thin and soupy, making the mainly flavorless tofu – which to the kitchen’s credit was fresh and silken – into the star of the dish. Not going to fly with me. Fortunately, the meal was not a total loss. The spicy Chengdu wontons in Szechuan peppercorn and vinaigrette ($6 for 8 wontons) offered great depth of flavor – at once spicy, smokey and sweet – and great textural contrast thanks to the delicate wonton wrappers and the hearty pork inside. Will I return? Maybe. The wontons and the service were great, but with Hot Kitchen and Legend much closer to where I live, it will be a tough sell.
Cafe China 13 E. 37th St. b/t 5th Ave and Madison Ave New York, NY 10016 212.213.2810 Open Daily 11:00am – 10:30pm