April 2, 1979 | Vintage Insatiable
A Scrutable Guide to New York’s Chinese Restaurants

        Trek to the Great Wall. Explore the mythic kitchens of Shanghai. Make the gourmand swing of Hong Kong. What adventurer could resist? Not I. But when I hunger for supernal Chinese food, I don’t have to stir. For depth and variety and style and luxury to thrill infidel tastes – to please even the most sophisticated American palate – I have a feeling that the best Chinese restaurants in the world are right here in New York.

        This is rash. After all, the truth is I’ve not been to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or mainland China, nor roamed the legendary street stands of Singapore. But in the past five months I’ve had more than a hundred meals in Chinese restaurants: a fascinating exercise designed to answer the question, Where is the best Chinese food in New York – in Chinatown or uptown?

        Midway through this wondrous odyssey, guided by Chinese scholars and gastronomes by chopsticks possessed, thrilled by the rediscovery of the familiar, dazzled by confrontation with brilliant exotica, I began to wonder – the insatiable hedonist, after all – how much better could it be? And I turned to the one man most responsible for the infinite variety of Chinese cuisine in New York, Craig Claiborne, just returned from China. It was Claiborne’s lust for the incendiary chili pepper that fueled the Szechuan revolution a decade ago. And now here is Craig confiding to me what I suspect – that nowhere, not in all his pilgrimages to Hong Kong and Taiwan, has he eaten as well as here.

        Our Chinese friends, I suspect, will be happiest in China, where everything is fresher and subtlety is the game. But Americans want an explosion of flavors. And New York’s Chinese restaurants coddle that passion.

        For most of us the China affection started with spareribs and egg roll. My chop suey days began in Detroit many good times ago. Since then man has walked on the moon, and I have eaten sea slugs and pigs’ ears. But there is still a fine distinction between my liberated hunger and Chinese taste. In Chinese culture, cuisine is a fine art, and the aesthetic rules are complex. There are moments when texture, for instance, becomes an end in itself. Bird’s nest and shark’s fin are prized not for their taste but for their texture. In “Chinese Gastronomy”, Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin tell how the fascination with new flavors and textures led to an obsession with parts – the cheeks of the fish, its soft underbelly, the jellylike tissue at the base of the dorsal fin – and innards. A far journey from egg foo young. Fat is a special affection. When I complained about the oil in a dish to the China Institute’s dame-chevalier of the Chinese kitchen, Florence Lin, she smiled. “In Chinatown that dish would have three times as much oil. In China, six times.”

        So I’ve savored innards and fish maw and struggled to understand duck feet, braved the arctic chill in Chinatown storefronts, discovered dried beef at Ping’s, 85 Bayard, hot and sweet – the Chinese eat it at the movies like popcorn. I’ve sipped bean-curd milk and tried sticky rice stuffed with peanuts and wrapped in ti leaves, bought from a child street vendor on Canal – it was awful. At Mei Lai Wah, 64 Bayard, the egg-custard tarts were flaky and tasted slightly raw. At Yuen Yuen Snacks, 61 Bayard, I could almost appreciate the delicate almond custard served in a cottage-cheese cup.

        Chinatown – growing, stretching north and east, changing the accents of Little Italy – is still mysterious and foreign. In some restaurants 99 percent of the faces are Chinese. Families gather for lunch at big round tables, three generations, the men on one side, the woman together, toddlers on laps. At the Chinatown Fair there is a live chicken that plays ticktacktoe. In September I played that chicken to a tie. But last week something went wrong. The damn bird won.

        There is splendid food in Chinatown. Dozens of times I’ve gathered six or eight adventurous mouths and trailed through the streets, sampling stuffed clams on Division Street, bean-curd fish curls on the Bowery, crabmeat and fried milk in the Arcade. But the best meals were the high-rent Chinese uptown.

        It shouldn’t be necessary to stand on your head and sing the Chinese national anthem to get a great meal in a Chinese restaurant. But, too often, alas, it is. Downtown, there are serious communication problems. Uptown, workable English does not guarantee a bridge between cultures. You need to establish credentials and seriousness. It always helps to eat with a Chinese friend. I used to carry a card that said, “Give this woman the real Chinese thing.” I was afraid to use it. I’m braver now. In Chinatown, you can point. That’s dangerous too. A friend once pointed eagerly to something crisp and brown being savored by a Chinese at the next table and was appalled to find himself eating pig’s snout.

        A word about service. “Family style” means everything you order is served as it is cooked, all at once in the center of the table for everyone to help himself. Uptown elegance usually provokes continental service – everything you order divided by the captain, entrées all on the same plate. To keep dishes coming only one or two at a time, you must insist. If you prefer to serve yourself, say so. Speak in a firm, authoritative, schoolteacher’s voice.

        The Chinese sip soup with dinner, scotch and warmed Chinese wine at banquets. Beer goes best with the peppery-hot food of Szechuan and Hunan. For nonbeer drinkers, a fruity wine makes sense – chenin blanc, moselblümchen, gewürztraminer. In most Chinatown restaurants, you may bring your own. I also have a weakness for rum, dark rum, and orange juice, and mai tais.

        The Chinese do not eat sweets for dessert. Candied bananas and apples certainly please the American sweet tooth. Some restaurants have abandoned taffied fruit because fritters are simpler to do. For me, fruit is the ideal finale to a Chinese dinner. If there is any fruit on this planet as wonderful as a raspberry, it might be the fresh litchi. May is the month.

        Here are the restaurants explored, graded by stars. One asterisk after a dish indicates something anyone would love, two asterisks mark a dish for more sophisticated tastes. There is a saying in Chinese: Eating is the sky. Go. Fly high. 

**** Shun Lee Palace

        It there were to be only one Chinese restaurant in town, I’d do voodoo to make sure it was Shun Lee Palace. Before I began this monomaniacal ramble, I took Shun Lee Palace, a longtime favorite berth, for granted. I loved it but I always imagined that somewhere in Chinatown there existed a secret, undiscovered temple of incomparable excellence. Now I know Shangri-la is a dream, and I treasure Shun Lee anew.

        It’s true I am indulged here beyond reason – indeed, beyond even madness – by Shun Lee’s remarkable sachem, Michael Tong. He sends carry-out by taxi. He improvises picnic suppers to go. He once orchestrated a banquet coup de grâce all in vegetables – bean-curd “duck,” bean-curd “shrimp,” rare mushrooms, cold vegetarian delicacies arranged in the form of a phoenix – ten courses, breathtakingly mounted. You can order one, too. Friends walking in off the street, served by just any harassed captain tell me it’s not nearly the same. Alas, if you look like you come from Podunk, the food may taste like it came from Podunk too. Ask for Michael. Give him the secret Szechuan handshake. I swear it’s not only journalists he pampers. Anyone who loves Chinese food with a passion will win him in no time.

        Say you’re my cousin. Let him dazzle you with candied walnuts* and the best cold delicacies in town: tender young chicken in a peanutty hot paste ($5.75*) to cool with springs of coriander; boned duck ($5.50*), a perfect foil for the house’s brilliant chili-blasted hot sauce; and just cooked shrimp, the survival side of incendiary – a trio costs $12*. If you look wistful, he might toss in soft bean curd** rolled around chewy black mushroom, some squares of preserved pork (bouncy like headcheese), and sweet-and-sour cucumber* (four tastes for $16). I’m especially addicted to Shun Lee’s Hunan notions: silken calf’s liver with wilted spinach ($10.50*), scallioned lamb ($8.50*), amazingly tender beef with watercress ($8.50*), tangy, spicy sea bass in narrow ribbons ($8.75*) or whole and crisp-fried ($10.75*), in sauces that are a miracle of fire, chili-hot but not fatal, balanced to let the garlic and ginger shine through. And for cooling contrast, velvet shrimp puffs ($8.50*), delicate little patties with water chestnut (that sweet aftertaste tells you they’re fresh, not canned). Ask for it two ways (tell Michael I said so): in a delicate wine sauce and in a toss of scallion, peas and curry.

        Liberated from my Hunan fixation, I discover: “heavenly fish fillets” gently poached in wine ($8.75*), a dish the minimalists of nouvelle cuisine would swoon over. Sublime chicken soong ($5.50*), tiny bits of breast meat punctuated with pine nuts and diced chestnuts, hot green chilies, ginger, garlic, carrot and scallion… to dab with the house’s elegantly doctored hoisin (the spicy, sweet condiment made of soy, chili, garlic, and vinegar) and roll in crisp lettuce leaves. Giant prawns silken as velvet in ginger-scallion sauce ($9.25*). Excellent fried dumplings ($2.95*). And the best Peking duck encountered, a brilliant production ($21*; see box).

        Chef-owner T.T. Wang (a partner too at Shun Lee Dynasty and Hunan) is a master of riding each new Chinese frenzy as it hits New York. He brought the country cooking of Hunan to town, and as affection mushroomed into obsession, Hunan tricks cropped up on Shun Lee’s menu. Apprenticed at eleven, Wang is a master of cutting. And cutting is the art most quickly abandoned by Chinese chefs in America. Certain dishes require vegetables to be ribboned, others shredded, some cut in diamonds or dice. The hacked chunks tossed around uptown and down would never get by Wang’s eye.

        There are some who don’t like the noise here. And others find the room trop Miami Beach. For me, it’s a comfortable uptown translation of Chinese. But I’m entranced, if not enchanted. One night last week, pressed by this deadline, I didn’t realize how late it was till hunger growled. For the first time I was free to order steak, or pizza, or tacos. I had a sudden passion for hot-and-sour soup. “Help,” I begged Michael. A taxi was dispatched with the best – the only great – hot-and-sour soup of my research ($1.75*), thick with meat and tree ears, bits of black mushroom, bamboo, Chinese cabbage, and tiger-lily buds, a perfect balance of vinegar, scallion, chili oil, and coriander. He sent fish fillets too, in a ginger-garlic sauce so searing I had to cool it with rice: a fire-eater’s heaven. Next day I finished the fish cool, slathered with yogurt – divine.

Shun Lee Palace, 155 East 55th Street, 212 371 8844.

For more on Shun Lee Palace, click here

***½ Fortune Garden

        That first lunch at Fortune Garden was such a disaster I might never have gone back except for the phone calls – the fastest mouths on the trail of the migrating chili-pepper pods, all touting Fortune Garden. So I tossed images of lukewarm soup, indifferent chicken, and disappearing waiters into the memory shredder. And seven of us gathered to explore the rumored greatness.

        There were three flashes of genius at that dinner. A delicious crunch of minced vegetables to wrap in lettuce-leaf packages (piled much too full to handle gracefully; $5.25*). Extraordinary fried flounder ($8.95*), perfumed with anise, the bones and skin crisply irresistible. And orange-flavored beef ($8.75*) so tender it was hard to believe it originated in a mere cow, its triple-fried crust flecked with garlic and ginger. But tastily sauced hacked chicken ($5.75) might have been less cooked. Honeyed riblets ($5.25*) were lukewarm and very chewy. Good but not brilliant were scallops and shrimp ($8.75) with tree ears and water chestnuts, and garlicky hot eggplant ($4.25*) stewed to a near mush.

        But more fragile than the eggplant was the communication. It melted so quickly. Asked to serve platters one at a time, the captain brought everything out at once and proceeded to dish it out. Protests drew blank faces. Having lost face, the captain put on his coat and departed.

        Certainly soon, perhaps by now, the service will shake down at Fortune Garden. It’s still new, elegant with nicely spaced tables and handsome red, black, and golden china and chopsticks – one guest had to be restrained from pocketing a covered teacup. But I’ve had a sample of Chef Ho’s artistry so impressive I’m going to find it difficult to accept a reversion to slapdash mediocrity. It was a lunchtime tasting before a Chaîne des Rotisseurs dinner. Chef Ho had been working to revise a few dishes to please the assembled critical palates.

        “Bean-curd roll” ($5.25*) is all it says on the menu – no clue to expect those soft, wrinkled little bean-skin packages filled with black mushroom and bamboo. Never except in France have I tasted any kidney as tender as the silken sliced kidney ($5.25*) with sprigs of coriander and slivers of ginger, scallion, and pepper. Fleshy, firm black winter mushrooms, marinated and cooked in oyster sauce, were arranged to look like a monkey’s head (going on the new menu $9.75), handsomely framed with tiny stalks of Shanghai-style bok choy, crisply al dente. The mushroom might have been filet mignon. Then raw crab. “We call it drunken crab,” the Chaîne taster confided. “It’s been marinated in Chinese wine and soy. We’d just as soon not mention that it’s raw.” The translucent gray slime was forbidding, but the gentle sea taste, sublime. Next came hot-pepper-sauced lamb ($8.25*) with leeks and watercress – again, its texture silkened by its egg-white-and-corn-starch marinade.

        Twice I return. At lunch we eat crisp spring rolls ($1.80) and a magnificent “snow white soup” ($5* for two, enough for four) – slices of delicately poached fish, with a crunch of bamboo and drifts of egg white in a beautiful broth. Ho’s lobster delight two flavor ($16.75) is blissful yin and yang of the sea. Dinner is an abbreviated version of the Chaîne’s banquet, plus a delicate crisp-fried noodle dish with shrimp and vegetables – very subtle, very good. Even the Viking Fire-eater could savor that subtlety. They’re fussing at Fortune Garden. The trick will be to get hosts George and Glory to do it for you too.

Fortune Garden 1160 Third Avenue near 67th Street.

*** HSF

        Grace and Ming are a mom-and-pop act with grand ambitions. They made it big in dim sum downtown at Hee Seung Fung on the Bowery. Naturally, they wanted to class up the show at their HSF on Second Avenue. They were smart enough to buy a sedate architectural setting by a moonlighting hand from Gwathmey Siegel – chrome and glass brick, beige, brown, gray, black, and white. What truly cheers is… they’ve brought their splendid dim sum tea lunch uptown. And what astonishes is how brilliant the kitchen can be when it really tries, in contrast to moments of mere competence.

        Not even a fresh-strawberry-daiquiri buzz can elevate the overgentled “heart and sole” ($7.25) from the ranks of no distinction. And the joy in the brilliant presentation of the “mariner’s love nest” ($10.50) fades. Both scallops and shrimp have spent too long on the fire, and the handsome fried-taro-stick basket ought to be crisper. Oh, well, our hot hors d’oeuvre are lovely. They always are. But the truth is the only times the kitchen has been totally skillful in my presence is when I have come with my friend the Rocky Mountain Sybarite. He telephones ahead. “I’m coming. I’m hungry. Do whatever you think is wonderful.” And they do.

        Happily, HSF soars with its dim sum. One o’clock. The entrance is wall-to-wall people. But after a fifteen-minute wait, we are pouring spring-bouquet tea and choosing a delightful lunch from the rolling cart. Not the same dizzying miscellany as downtown– no duck feet or fish maw, no pig’s ears (no sense casting swine before us pearls) – but crunchy vegetarian rolls wrapped in bean-curd skin, tasty shrimp “quenelle” on a green-pepper square (minus the drizzle of black-bean sauce it gets downtown), wondrous crab-claw puff, assorted fine nubbins of odds and ends in wonton wrappers, chopped beef in slippery rice noodle, and sticky rice studded with tasty tidbits. For the sake of scientific research I taste an unappealing rectangle of coconut gelatin… and I love it. All that, $15 for two.

        But HSF showed its astonishing artistry at a spectacular banquet for Julia and Paul Child choreographed by the R.M. Sybarite. With wine and sake and beer and mai tais, it cost our eight $376, tip included. Ming had found the most extraordinary shrimp ever encountered in a Chinese restaurant – fresh, heads on, antennae graced in Art Nouveau curves, flavor boosted by a prudently brief poaching in the house’s number one broth (poaching liquid can stay in a family for generations, gathering essence over the years). Fillets of gray sole, carefully cooked, were wrapped in bean-curd sheets as thin as strudel dough. Bits of delicate crab, shrimp, lobster, and black mushroom in clouds of bean-curd custard were packaged in rice paper.

        A giant winter melon had been carved, fluted exquisitely, and filled with tiny cubes of good things. Then banjo duck: tender flesh, crisp skin, hoisin sauce. More theater: shang tong lobster, flesh delicately cooked, scented with black bean, ginger, and scallion, the creature’s illuminated eyes flashing on and off; carrots carved in the shapes of butterflies, crickets. Meaty abalone mushrooms braised in oyster sauce were framed with the twisted branches of mustard-green stems. One lone off note was a trace of chemical taste in the lemon sauce of the boneless squab. The sturdiest warriors survived to taste the half-moon dumplings in broth. And everyone revived for fresh fruit and a taste of almond float – vulcanized gelatin, alas. A petty flaw in a glorious performance.

HSF, 578 Second Avenue, at 32nd Street.

*** David K’s

        Everything David Keh touches turns to gold. Fifteen years ago he was a waiter at the Four Seas on Wall Street. A man named Lu, a brilliant, natural cook, was in the kitchen. Together they moved to Szechuan Taste on Chatham Square for the flowering of the Szechuan revolution. And then uptown to Szechuan East on Second Avenue, where David Keh got rich and Uncle Lu got famous and then lonely and then disappeared. Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan made David richer. He got the old Longchamps on Third Avenue at 65th for a pittance, insiders say. And there he opened Chung Kuo Yuan, a citadel of pretension, outrageous prices, and flavors so tame you might have been eating a photograph torn out of Gourmet magazine.

        Then one day someone pointed out t him that the Chinese characters in Chung Kuo Yuan made 28 strokes – an unlucky number. Hastily he changed his logo: It became David K’s. In the next chapter, Keh confided to a friend, the house took in a quarter of a million dollars. And now the long downstairs salon and enclosed garden is often crowded. Chopsticks tap against Rosenthal china. And with Keh’s prices he can afford the pleasant spacing of tables, the hovering help, and potted spring flowers.

        Then why isn’t it better? In the past four months I’ve eaten here five times, never anonymously, alas, and tasted three or four glorious masterworks. More often the food is just good, precise, with a fine finish, often brilliant texture, usually subdued flavor. And too often it’s, quite frankly, boring. At one lunch, two of us spent $50 trying in vain to find something exciting to eat. Across the room my best friend from Paris said her lunch had been extraordinaire. What did I do wrong?

        A late supper for three – rather tough noodles, cool in a deliciously spicy hot sesame-scented sauce ($4.50); and the house’s celebrated orange-flavor beef ($12), tender and flavored – ends abruptly as suddenly the lights come on full blast. At tables throughout the room, heads reel and one man cries out: “Hey, turn down the lights.” The headwaiter is stony. “We can’t,” he says. “It’s time to close.”

        The garden is abloom with flowers and famous faces for Dena Kaye’s birthday. Daddy is Danny, an astonishing maestro of the wok himself. We have Henry Kissinger at one table. Walter Cronkite at another. This has got to be a knockout. And the Mongolian hot pot is a triumph (once they turn on the air conditioner to clear the choking smoke). Every meat and sea creature imaginable plus bean curd, vegetables, noodles, platter after platter, is sliced for guests to poach in the bubbling broth, gracing the soup with an explosion of essences. (This masterpiece of theater can be booked for eight or more at $35* per person.) The verve of the evening encourages me to try yet again. “We want to be thrilled,” I tell Keh’s majordomo, Norman Chi, asking for “new tastes, but nothing that’s not available to just anyone.” What we get is beauty, style, courtly service, triumph or two, and then boring, characterless refinement. Best is a piquant salad of bean curd ($5.75*) in fine matchsticks with scallion and haunting coriander; tangy crisp-skin squab ($18* for two); spicy, tingly beef ($12*); and delicious scallops ($12*) with celery, garlic, scallion, magically sauced. Wine flows like water. Tea takes forever. Otherwise, our captain, Thomas, makes me feel like a Ming Dynasty nasty empress.

For more on David Keh click here

David K’s, 1115 Third Avenue, at 65th Street.

*** Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan

        What has become of Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan now that Uncle Tai has gone west? This has been my East Side Chinese home – an easy stroll uptown from all the Third Avenue flicks, nights off from restaurant reviewing – just for splendid fuel, just for fun. True, the fine edge of perfection has dulled over the years. Some of the style and snap seemed to dim as impresario David Keh concentrated his efforts uptown. Still Hunan Yuan’s menu remains an exciting exploration of Chinese exotica – with diced squab in lettuce packages ($6.75*); cold peppered rabbit ($6.75*), hot and oily on thin crisps of sweet-and-sour cucumber, or rabbit hot and garlicky with an accent of orange ($9.75*); and, in season, venison and pheasant (both $9.75*), mysterious and silken, sweet and fiery.

        Hunan Yuan has always been soothingly consistent. Even at lunch, when houses downtown turn into fast-food mess halls, it keeps a measure of dignity. The hot-appetizer assortment is an insult and a mistake at any hour, but the shredded beef with garlic, ginger, water chestnuts, and scallions ($5.25*) has a fine custom-order finesse. At dinner, Uncle Tai’s beef ($11.75*) is rare and fork-tender in its sweet, garlicky crust with a hint of orange. “Wonderful taste chicken” ($6.75*), cool cuts in a feverish hot sauce, is still a wonder. And I’m a fool for eggplant almost any way, especially dosed with garlic, ginger, and peppery oil ($6.25*).

        But one recent Saturday night, a desultory dinner for eight provoked regretful longing for that earlier glory. Even though the reservation was in another name, I was recognized at once. Suddenly David Keh himself materialized. (Does he wear a beeper?) And as our wait stretched – 45 minutes, no sign of food – I spied overcoated reinforcements headed for the kitchen. All that manpower was to little avail. Honeyed Hunan ham with sticky sweet dates ($6.75) was still the salty-sweet curiosity even old China hands either love or hate. The heavily crumbed oysters ($6.75) would have made good paperweights. Uncle Tai’s “tri-color” lobster ($22), so handsome with its bright red clawed torso triumphant, was a bit tough and sadly flat. Neither the twice-cooked pork with bitter melon ($7.75) and delayed afterburn nor an old favorite, sliced duck with young ginger root ($9.75), had the dazzle this kitchen once knew. But a pleasing balance of custardy bean curd with ham and peas ($6.25*) in a spicy hot sauce raised spirits for the theater to come: the chrysanthemum hot pot ($22 for four). Everyone was given a raw egg in a soup bowl, a fondue fork, a long-handled mesh basket, and instruction in the art of poaching thin slices of fish, chicken, beef, and lamb in bubbling broth, to then dip in sauce. Chopsticks. Fork. Soup spoon. Tongs. Basket. I could have used six hands. One friend needed five milligrams of Valium, he got so carried away. By the end of the evening, both the broth and the intimacy had grown wonderfully intense. Soup was swirled into the egg, and the survivors pronounced it quite glorious. Then even the numbed rallied for a taste of soft-battered bananas in a blizzard of sugar ($3.50).

        I won’t abandon Hunan Yuan. I’m hoping that was just Saturday-night fever.

Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, 1059 Third Avenue, near 62nd Street.

**½ Hunam

        The hot-sause Olympics take place every night at Hunam. There is no Richter scale for pepper’s heat, so we’re winging it. “You like hot?” the waiter asks, grinning his challenge. “Yes,” comes the chorus. “Hot hot?” “Hot hot,” we cry. “Well, not everything hot hot hot,” someone interjects. The waiter grins, triumphant. “Wait,” says the Viking Fire-eater, calling the waiter back. “You do it hot. Then we’ll let you know if it’s hot enough.”

         Our sampler of cold delicacies ($8.50, serves two) arrives, with little saucers of ginger and Szechuan pepper oil to liven the action. One innocent pops a shrimp into his mouth, the morsel barely opaque, cool and soft… with a four-alarm afterkick. He flushes. The Rocky Mountain Sybarite sites there, cooling his lips against the water glass. The innocent tries cooling his with Sea & Ski Lipsavers.

        “Too hot for you,” the waiter heckles.

        It’s not the heat. It’s the humility. If only the shrimp were truly wonderful. But they are weary. The preserved duck is tough; so is the hacked chicken. The bird is overcooked, dry, and stringy, but I love that peanutty sauce. I am the only one at the table who remembers the early splendor of this kitchen. Performance has slipped a notch. But we are sipping mai tais (too sweet… mai tais are too sweet everywhere), and everyone is happy. They are enchanted with the Olympic competition, the stunning fusillade of flavors and our situation-comedy waiter (“Only one in the house from Hunan,” he boasts). The dissonance of décor has softened over the years, and even with its lapses, Hunam pleases.

         Though certain cold appetizers suffer indifferent care, they’re still irresistible. Best is the tangy and spicy chicken ($5.75*), its fiery oil scented with sesame. But I like the duck ($5.75*) too, especially as a vehicle for the house’s incendiary hot sauce. And a peppery dress makes the jellyfish ($6.25) more interesting than most. Crisp cabbage is like fine jazz, hot and cool. But the fried dumplings ($2.95) are pathetic poseurs.

         I remember vividly the first ecstatic shock of Hunam’s meats – so silken from their egg-white-and-cornstarch marinade one was often mystified for a moment by the identity of the animal. Human lamb ($7.75*), General Gau’s duckling ($7.95*), beef with fresh watercress ($7.95*), still have that textural magic in sauces fragrant as well as hot. Sautéed smoked chicken ($6.95*) is a poem of tiny chicken bits booby-trapped with minced pepper and garlic, perfumed with strings of pungent coriander. Each taste sings its solo even with your mouth on fire.

         An experiment – I ask for Chinese vegetables prepared in the style of tangy and spicy green beans ($5.75*). Sheer inspiration, though the vegetables deserve a bit more crunch. Wilted spinach makes a perfect nest for Tungan bean curd ($5.50*) with a sauce marrying scallion, pepper, and coriander. And the eggplant ($5.75*) is blitzed by heat till the skin is like paper and the flesh melts into a garlicky, gingery, fiery-hot custard – true bliss.

        As we mop brows and cool mouths with sour pineapple and unripe melon, the waiter sidles over. “Next table people eat it 10 percent hotter,” he taunts. I shake my head, feeling a sudden pounding of the surf in my temples.

         “They shouldn’t give you a fortune cookie,” hisses the R.M. Sybarite. “They should give you a Croix de Guerre.” Well, it hurts a little, but I love it.

For more on Hunam click here

Hunam, 845 Second Avenue at 45th Street.
  
** ½ Pearls

         Chic is partly the villain at Pearl’s. Chic, like disco and flamenco, clashes with serious fine feeding and blurs that sense of authenticity. And Pearl, with her Time Inc. angels, her media oracles, the rag-biz matinee idols, is enduring chic. Sunday night at Pearl’s is fiercely clubby, an institution. But underneath all that gossip-column-itemizing, the truth is Pearl brought serious Cantonese food uptown. Even her competitors credit her with that. Caught up in the siren heat of the Szechuan pepper, I’d long ago cut my umbilical to Cantonese beginnings… not visited Pearl’s in eons, not since she moved to the ultra-minimalist setting designed for her by Gwathmey Siegel. It’s so pure they even left out the apostrophe, and the sign outside reads Pearls. But Pearl doesn’t mind being mistaken for a jewelry store. It was Gwathmey Siegel’s first restaurant venture. The entrance doesn’t exactly work. There’s no checkroom for our lynxes and sables. And the acoustics are not kind. 

         Time has mellowed the original Dragon Lady. At lunch not even Helen Gurley Brown can get a reservation. One evening at 9:45 the kitchen is out of clams, squab… we get the last two blue crabs ($2 each), a bit overcooked, but the elusive meat is delicious to suck out, sweet against the sharp and pleasing tang of burned scallion bits. And nobody offers better crisp-fried noodles than Pearl. Dip one end warily in hot mustard, the other in tart plum sauce – they’re really worth the calories. These are patrician spareribs ($4.25*), meaty, moist, sweet but not candied. Long ago at Pearl’s I acquired the yook soong habit ($6* - tiny nubbins of chicken or pork or beef punctuated with chopped almonds and bits of water chestnut, to dab with hoisin sauce and roll in lettuce packages). Moo shu pork with pancakes ($6) is another inevitable here – no one makes more delicate crêpes – but the filling seems scant on pork and tree ears and primly bland. The pike ($12.50*) is tenderly steamed and served in a puddle of soy with scallion threads and black beans, salty and fermented. Everyone is ecstatic to find a really assertive seasoning at last. But I am euphoric over the wondrous subtlety of steamed eggs with oyster sauce and bits of pork, black mushrooms, bean curd, and cellophane noodles hidden in custard ($6.75*).

         At lunch with loyal champions of the house, I discover the pussycat in Pearl. And feast happily on exquisite baby clams in a heady black-bean sauce ($8*); sweet fatty Chinese sausage with crisp Chinese broccoli (not on the menu, $8*); fingers of fish with bean sprouts, scallions, snow peas, and pickled ginger ($9.50*); and large morsels of lobster with cellophane noodles, lotus root, bamboo, snow peas ($16*). Subtle… oh my, yes – but my taste for Cantonese nuance is reviving again. It does not succumb to Pearl’s legendary lemon chicken ($9), but mine seems to be a minority opinion.

        Thrilled to rediscover Pearl’s, I invite friends for a Peking-duck dinner. Something goes wrong. Even the eggs in oyster sauce have lost brilliance. Perhaps it is partly the din and dim – our cul-de-sac near the bar seems to amplify clatter. Perhaps the kitchen is less skillful after dark. But having reliberated a forgotten taste, I will go back to Pearl’s. I’ll take along a fellow champion of the Cantonese table and beg for a quiet corner.

For more on Pearl's click here

Pearl’s. 38 West 48th Street, 586-1060. 
 
** Gold Coin

         “There’s a new team, a new renaissance at the Gold Coin,” my informant reported. So midway through this odyssey, convinced the right credentials would spur certain chefs to greatness, I book a table for nine with the pass phrase (I hope): “I am a student of Florence Lin’s. I want the same wonderful dishes you gave her last week.” It doesn’t quite work. Frankly, I suspect I am recognized. Not even that works. The service is imperial. But the smiling, bowing, solicitous patron is not comfortable in English. The divine guidance I yearn for never comes. I could throw darts at the menu and be no less random. But my darts do all right. So does the kitchen.

        Two cold delicacies atone for one disappointment: voluptuously tender duck ($4.75*) smothered in a rather anonymous brown sauce, mostly tender hacked chicken ($4.25*) in a chili-tempered peanut-butter sauce, and jellyfish ($4.75) that reminds me of rubber bands. The fried dumplings ($2.50* for four) are truly splendid, as is eight treasure chicken soong ($8.75*), fast-stir-fried chicken bits with ham, black mushroom, pine nuts, snow peas, and water chestnut – a delightfully complex medley spoiled slightly by the waiters’ heaping so much into crisp iceberg-lettuce leaves that it is unmanageable as finger food. (There seems to be a citywide conspiracy against artful lettuce packages.)

        Mysteriously tender velvet shrimp ($8.75*) in egg-white clouds with bits of water chestnut and one brave flower of broccoli are played against spicy fingers of unpleasantly tough tangerine beef ($8.75).  Peking soy duck ($7.95), falling-apart tender, is a foil for peppery garlic-studded eggplant ($4.75*). The head and tail of the crispy whole fish in hot sauce ($8.75*) stand erect, but the boned body is carved into crisp little cross sections, sweet and spicy. Beside it is custardy bean curd with black mushrooms ($5.25) and a few frozen peas, delicate and delicious. The tart chill of preserved fruits on ice seems a prudent finale.

         At lunch, another disappointing tidbits for two ($6.50). I’m beginning to feel like a doomed Diogenes in futile search of an honest pu pu. Gold Coin steak ($12.50) is an Americanization, of course: Rare but tasteless sirloin comes sliced. At the table, crisp Chinese vegetables are poured onto the platter. You can hear the sizzle. Son et lumière. With wizardly spicing, it could be wonderful. But the giant sea scallops ($8.75*) are gently tossed and graced with tree ears, scallion, garlic, and pepper fire. Gold Coin seems worth deeper exploration.

Gold Coin, 835 Second Avenue, near 45th Street.
 
** Peking Park

         When the time-clocked lunchtime hordes settle into this cavernous space for wonton and combination plates, no chopsticks, please. Peking Park sinks to the lowest common denominator. At one lunch, both dishes arrive lukewarm. Mokshu pork (moo shu) with pancakes ($4.95) is singularly unexciting. Taro duck ($10**), touted by a Chinese friend, is boned, with mashed taro between tender moist meat and crisp duck skin. Taro – a starchy root vegetable – is definitely a cultivated taste. You’ll want to share taro duck with several friends. A little goes a long way. Ignore the sauce.

        Peking Park is where Florence Lin often celebrates graduations with her China Institute cooking classes. So when Mrs. Lin appears for lunch, the kitchen is apt to perk up. Spareribs ($4.50*) here are marinated then broiled, sweet and meaty. A cold appetizer of sliced pork and pork skin ($5.25) brings a predictable response. We nibble at the meat. Mrs. Lin loves the fatty skin. That bounciness is a Chinese taste. “It’s hsien,” she says: “hsien means tasty.” Cartilage, jellyfish, preserved squid… all are bouncy.

         There is a crisis when the crab claws ($3) arrive – smelling of ammonia. But then comes crystal shrimp ($7.95*). The most exalted of the nouvelle cuisine masters of France would be moved by these gossamer shrimp, one second beyond translucent, nestled on a tangle of carrot and scallion and ginger threads. The sauce – ancient shrimp paste, served separately, thank heaven – smells like old sneakers. Florence Lin is delighted. “We do like smelly fish,” she says. There is a hot sauce too. Dip goes a shrimp and my friend warns, “Don’t put it in just one place or you’ll die.” Crisp-fried chicken ($9), moist and salty, is followed by pork pan-fried noodle ($4.50*), an authentic version of chow mein with noodles both crisp and soft, and Chinese vegetables.
Peking Park, 100 Park Avenue, at 40th Street

** Flower Drum

         The Flower Drum is unabashed Hollywood hokum. Through these beaded curtains into this shadowed alcove could step at any moment… Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet. And proprietor Peter Lee is a calligrapher and a bit of a poet too, with his passion for honoring the seasons and his ode to lovers in the stars – interpreted in gently spicy beef surrounded by rays of scallion pancake. The winter menu leads off with a steaming hot pot. Spring will play with the first asparagus.

        The service is fancy French unless you instruct otherwise, and most dishes lack the finesse of the best Chinese restaurants uptown. But what pleases me most about Flower Drum is its double-delight mini-banquets for four, or even two – an indulgence for the gourmand who wants a tiny taste of many things. Small portions are served side by side – cool against spicy, with crisp pickled cabbage and sweet-and-sour cucumber on the side. And candied walnuts with sweet plum wine.

         At dinner four of us mellow over rum drinks in the darkest corner, toying with flaming hors d’oeuvre ($6.75 to feed two): good little rounds of minced shrimp, a decent spring roll, curried beef in fried pastry, sadly dehydrated pillow chicken. And tender “sophisticated spicy dumpling” ($3.75, serves two), soft wonton in a spicy sesame sauce. “Bon Appetit,” says the waiter. The shrimp platter is breathtaking Technicolor – on one side a hill of tender shrimp in a tomato-tinged sauce, ringed with a moat of shredded snow peas and red maraschino cherries; on the other, fast-sautéed shrimp, golden (and refrettably tough) on pale lettuce shreds ringed with green cherries. The bloom is off the “lovers in the stars” ($7.75) too. Plum duck ($8.75) with bits of skin, tender flesh, and tasteless sauce needs something. The knowing waiter brings a small dish of hot sauce.

         With drinks, wonderful fresh pineapple, canned kumquats, litchis, and lovely jasmine tea, dinner for four is $82.50. Lunch is simpler, crowded, and efficient.

Flower Drum, 856 Second Avenue, near 46th Street.

For more on Flower Drum click here.

*½ Peng’s

         Peng’s is a factory at lunch and can be a free-fall of grease at night. “The mighty grow too soon sloppy” is the message I’d leave in Peng’s fortune cookie. Uncle Peng, highly celebrated as the onetime chef of Chiang Kai-shek, is a cook, insiders say, but not a chef. Indeed, he is a restaurant consultant (these days, who isn’t?) and is no longer in New York. But Peng’s is esteemed for his creative touch and is always crowded; that’s why the disappointment is so bitter.

         At noon… a population explosion. The waiters race and reel, lurch, collide without apology, toss a single page of stained orange menu – abbreviated and cut-rate. In the big back room, we sit elbow to elbow with strangers. A listless pu pu platter ($5.50) is followed by two dishes both sauced in orange – abused shrimp, sweet and hot with scallions ($5.95), and bean curd Szechuan style ($5.25). Not very impressive.

         Dinner is quieter, though the place has lost our reservation. Seated finally and full of hope in a comfortably lit room with service plates in chinoiserie and napkin origami. Ah, James Beard is recognized and so am I. Indifferent captains become fawning squires. Now, a rude betrayal: Peng’s minced-squab soup in bamboo container ($1.85). Loved by me always in the past, now pitifully tasteless, like a small patty of dog food crumbling in blah broth. Velvet corn ($1.75) has an eggy, chemical taste. Shredded pork and pickled cabbage ($1.25) is drearily bland. And the hot-and-sour soup ($1.25) lacks hot, sour, crunch. Sautéed pheasant ($9.75) – another wonderful memory – is flat and boring. Chicken, three styles ($9.50), needs more contrast, but General Tso’s chicken ($7.95*), in a crisp, sweet, garlic-studded coat with scallions and ginger, is wonderful. Dry-sautéed shredded beef ($7.95) with chewy shreds of carrot and celery, moderately peppery, has a burned undertaste, not the smokiness call “wok taste” but closer to scorch. Everything seems brushed with a coating of oil – it lingers on the tongue. Not even the good strong tea can cut the film.

         It takes a while to gather the stamina for another try. Late lunch with the crowds melted away will give the chefs a chance to shine, I hope. From the dinner menu: hacked chicken ($5.75) in neat strands, too cold, too cooked, tossed at the last minute in a hot peanutty sauce. Pitiful watery dumplings, wonton in a diluted hot-oil sauce ($4.25). Lobster ($12.95) cooked to the quick in the shell, sauce zesty with ginger. Again, lamb two ways ($8.95), half peppery with straw mushrooms, the other half sweeter with scallion – not enough counterpoint. Pause for a grisly interlude: The waiter scrapes cracked shell and debris – the platter in the middle of our table is his garbage dump. It’s 2:40 now and for all I know it may be the number-four chef manning the wok, or even the dishwasher, but General Tso’s chicken is garlicked to transcendence. And properly al dente broccoli ($5.95*) with chewy cords of pork is a nice accent in its hot-oil bath. A reasonably proficient production with one moment of triumph.

For more on Peng's click here

Peng’s, 219 East 44th Street, 212 682 8050.

*½ House of Chan

         If you still treasure the withered gardenia from prom night at the House of Chan, you’ll be astonished at the renaissance. The interior facelift is still in the works. So far it’s a bit murky but very handsome. And there’s a bright new exciting menu with some rather fanciful offerings, sweet and hot, ranging from a splendid peasanty scallioned lamb with heady preserved ginger, village style ($6.95*), to an aristocratic Peking duck in four acts (the fourth is a steamed custard made with pan drippings; $30). The bar makes superlative mai tais in a 3-D glass that looks like Disney’s idea of Gauguin.

         Alas, the kitchen is uneven. Some dishes taste of heat and no other flavor. There is a great variety of flora and fauna in every dish and lots of color, but too smiliar tastes. The rai ping poon platter is expensive ($7.50* for two) but features very good spareribs, skewered beef, and moist chicken fritters. The dim sum and fried half-moons (“Suey’s dream”) are a disgrace. Treasure roll is a glorified egg roll stuffed with pork and lobster in a delicious skin at an inflationary $4.25.

         Best of all are burnt squares of fragrant eggplant with smoked ham, chicken so tender and tasteless I mistook it for sweetbreads, dried shrimp, and cashews ($6.25*). Asked to do something with a sausage, the headwaiter delivers a delicious seafood wor ba with sweet, fat Chinese sausage ($10.95*), but his spicy moo shou yoke pork ($7.95), with delicate pancakes and slivers of snow pea and bell pepper, tastes too strongly of lily buds for me. So does Grandma Ng’s chicken ($6.95) with sausage and red dates (jujubes). And the steamed sea bass toishan ($9.50) is cooked too long. It is delightfully garnished with slivers of ginger and Chinese preserved cucumber, but better a bean-curd custard than these rubbery squares. Anyway, it’s a menu I want to explore more.

For more on House of Chan click here

House of Chan, Seventh Avenue at 52nd Street.

 * The Dumpling House

         There is a brown cotton apron hanging in the window of the Dumpling House. On it is printed: The Greatest Chinese Chef. And the dark, stooped man at the wok inside is the celebrated Szechuan chef Uncle Lu the wanderer, settled, for the moment anyway, in this neat, bare wood-paneled storefront in the wilds of lower Second Avenue. It is late, the door already locked at 10:30, but we persuade a waiter to let us in. Young and spiffy in red plaid weskits, the staff smiles – what a treat – and is eager to please.
  
        Except for the soggy uncooked dough of the scallion pancake ($2) – raw is authentic, it seems – the dinner is glorious. Delicious fried dumplings ($2.50*) might be a whit crisper. But the smoke tea duck ($7.50**) is a stunning surprise, its cured flesh rose-red and moist, the skin crisp and wonderfully flavorful… a pool of hoisin sauce for dipping, peppery pickled cabbage salad and thin sticks of cucumber for contrast. The waiter’s recommendation, Cheng-tu pork ($5.50*), looks like a Klimt with its glistening deep color. The taste is a medley of dried bean curd, scallion, bell peppers with a salty, peppery-hot finish.

        Thus it is with electric anticipation that we gather eight of us a few nights later and bid Uncle Lu cook “whatever he thinks is wonderful.” Since “dumpling” is the name of the game here, I order appetizers ($6) to start. My cynical chums protest: “Pu pu was created for those who deserve it.” They are right. It’s the universal curse of the pu pu. Except for a nicely battered shrimp everything is pure grease city. Even the dumplings taste rewarmed. Half of us have good hot-and-sour soup ($1.25). The other half bliss out over shrimp of astonishing flavor studded with peas and carrots in a robust broth enhanced with the crunch of sizzling rice ($4*, serves two).

        Next come giant sea scallops, tenderly cooked, separated from a hill of spicy beef tenderized into weird, tortured pieces by a dividing hedge of wilted spinach ($9.50). “Snow white” crabmeat ($16) in billows of egg white with cellophane noodles is a clever juxtaposition but insipid. Applause greets the platter of duck in two styles ($15). Neither style pleases. Baby eggplants cooked whole with a fiery garlic sauce ($10) is an inspired notion, but eggplants need to be split to absorb oil and flavor. I know I’m being sternly critical. I expected so much. It is a noisy, happy, hungry table.

         We stop eating only because the waiter declares: “This is it. Uncle Lu thinks you’ve eaten enough.”

         We have drunk four bottles of Pinot Grigio (at $5.50) from a list marked gently above retail and have basked in the cheerfulness of the staff. I remember the golden days of Uncle Lu. I’ll try again.

The Dumpling House, 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street.

                                                                                 ***
  
                                                  CHINATOWN ROUNDUP

*** Tung Sing

         “What is special tonight” you must ask Dorothy Chung at Tung Sing, a drab corner storefront. She will read the Chinese characters on the wall. “You won’t like it,” she will say. But maybe you will, for the kitchen here has a grace and finesse that surpasses anything I’ve tasted in Chinatown.

         Dorothy’s two-year-old struts up to our table and hands my friend a piece of raw broccoli. “He says it’s a flower,” his mother translates. In this homey setting the chef produces sublime crisp-fried shrimp in the shell ($5.25*) and magnificent crisp-fried squid ($4.50*), mystically tender and salty, too, with rings of hot green pepper served with an ancient shrimp-paste sauce you may wish to respect from a distance. Crisp taro basket with squid, shrimp and broccoli ($6.75*) is as delicious as it is beautiful. And a whole whiting ($4.75*), exquisitely steamed, dressed with a paste of black bean and a spark of ginger and hot pepper, is truly a miracle. Seafood, is the focus here, but we also have perfect salt-baked chicken ($5.50*), delicious watercress braised in melted bean curd ($2.50*), and a spectacular casserole of innards – with fish ball, lettuce, and a scent of ginger in a delicate broth (off the wall, $4.25*), enough for six. Braised duck with black mushrooms ($6.25) is unremarkable, and the breaded chicken with lemon sauce ($4.50) signals a negative message.

        A venerable uncle has just arrived from Hong Kong, and Tung Sing hopes to offer dim sum at lunch. Asked for some special dishes recently, he did four delightful notions, but only the butterflied-fish toast was edible. Tung Sing has been so brilliant till now, I pray it won’t waffle with misguided gimmickry.

Tung Sign, 6 East Broadway.
 
*** HSF (Hee Seung Fung)

         Saturday lunchtime, Causasian cognoscenti compete with Chinese families for Hee Seung Fung’s big round tables with plastic dropcloths. Besides the fusillade of dim sum the kitchen does rice porridge, burns fish directly on the fire for that singed taste the Chinese love. And the noodles consumed with seafood in bland cornstarched sauces would stretch from here to San Francisco.

        When it is good, Hee Seung Fung is very, very good, but at dinner the throngs thin to a trickle, and once in a while the kitchen can be erratic. It isn’t always easy to get what you want even if Grace herself is officiating. One Grace-less attempt to get rice-paper packages of custardy bean curd produces fried stuffed bean curd ($3.50), with minced shrimp in the pocket – good, but one is enough. A second try brings delicious vegetarian egg roll ($1.35*) – crunchy and delicious. Now, if all prearranged systems are go, you will just ask for rice-paper packages, seafood or ham and mushroom, and you’ll get two heavenly rectangles filled with bean curd custard and odds and ends for $1.50.

        Best dishes here are clams or tiny snails (both $4.75*) in black-bean sauce; fragile pan-fried gray sole ($7.95*) with spice-perfumed skin and sprigs of coriander; Peking spareribs ($5.25*); juicy crabs with tangy black bean ($4.75*); perfect salt-baked chicken ($6.95*) with ginger sauce; oyster-sauced broccoli ($3.25*); salty crisp-fried squid ($4.95*) with dots of red pepper, black bean, and garlic. Try the mai fun (rice noodles), chow fun (broad noodles), and crisp-fried Cantonese noodles to see what the Chinese noodle passion is all about.

Hee Seung Fung, 46 Bowery between Bayard and Canal. 212 374 1319.

**½ Canton

        There are moments when you’ll suspect the Chinatown sprawl is taking a cultural toll of the chef at Canton. If you have ordered ahead and are now tucking into clams casino ($4.75*), dotted with red and green pepper, and shrimp stuffed with tomato-sauce-bound pork ($7.50*), and if next you are served chicken patties stuffed with pork forcemeat ($7.50*)… you may recall the myths of Marco Polo and wonder which culture stole from which. But it doesn’t matter. The theme here is Cantonese, with and without the culturual stretch. This is where Pearl eats on her night off. And it’s a favorite of I. M. Pei’s. It’s exciting to taste unlisted specialties, but you will be happy, too, simply exploring the menu, entrées from $3.95. We have celestial diced-winter-melon soup ($3.50* for two), understated and delicate. The catch of the day is fluke, deep-fried in a sweet, puffy batter and served with crisp Chinese vegetables. On the menu it’s listed as hong siu yu ($6.50*).

         At lunch one day I ask for something with sausage. Host Eileen Leong gives us two kinds of steamed sausage on Chinese broccoli ($4.50*). Chinese pork sausage is fatty and sweet. The duck-liver sausage has a mellow sophistication that is addictive. “How about chicken with black-bean sauce?” she suggests. “Could it be dark-meat chicken?” I request. It could, and it is – moist, expertly cooked chicken, heady with garlic and pungent black bean against the crispness of snow peas ($5.95*).

         What is really special about Canton is how eager the staff is to please. When the old Canton at 6 Mott shuttered several years ago to make way for an office building, Eileen retired. Now, with her husband in the kitchen, she is back. For classic Cantonese with no communication struggles, Canton is reborn.

Canton, 45 Division Street.

**½ Hop Shing

        I got so caught up in the cacophony at Hop Shing that first lunch – fascinated by the faces at the round table we shared, thrilled by the crispy fried flounder ($4.95*) and moist salt-boiled chicken ($5.95*) ordered by architect Paul Chen – I never did actually look at the menu. Dim sum pushers chanted their dumplings. The long room was jammed.

        The waiter had his doubts when Chen ordered Buddha’s delight ($3.50). “Those two [he pointed to us gringos] going to eat fermented bean curd?” Chen vouched for us. The bean curd was pleasant enough but the slippery texture of the dish was more sensual a delight to my friends than to me. Still the lunch was impressive. “It’s even better at dinner when they’re not trying to do dim sum too,” Paul noted.

        Returning at night I am perplexed by the menu. Chop suey revisited. “This is too American,” I protest. “I want Chinese food.” I look around. There is not another Caucasian face in the room. “Can you read what it says on the wall?” I ask the waiter, pointing to the Chinese characters on bright-colored ribbons. He runs off for help. The second waiter reads: “Chicken. Clams. Beef. Oysters.” “How do you do the oysters?” “Scallions,” he says. Everything seems to be cooked with scallions. It is painful for both of us… back and forth, struggling. Finally we order “chicken salad,” fried oysters, and crabs who-knows-how. The oysters, in a wonderful crackling pouf of batter ($3.95*) have a perfect wok flavor though the meat is slightly too cooked. Chicken with salad ($6.55**) turns out to be perfectly poached chicken with cornstarch-thickened broth wilting iceberg lettuce. Though I’m sure some palates might be put off by globs of chicken fat, soft yellow skin, and wilted lettuce, the three of us love it.

Hop Shing, 9 Chatham Square.
 
** Hoolok Corporation

        Hoolok Corporation’s days are numbered if we are to believe Colette and Jim Rossant. There is a time in the flowering of a Chinatown legend when the balance of faces at the tables shifts to the West. That is the moment Colette, cookbook writer and teacher, itches to move on. “Still, you must go to Hoolok for mock duck and the jellyfish with radish,” she counseled. It was Colette who led me to Tung Sing. Now I listen.

         It’s a blizzardy Sunday night. Tiny Hoolok, a shabby storefront haven of Shanghai home cooking, is full. Lots of families, babies on laps. Near the door everyone is bundled in overcoats and mufflers, chopsticking away in the icy blasts. Prices have gone up, Colette mourns. Hoolok used to be the cheapest place wider than a counter in town. But even now the most expensive entrée is only $4.25.

        Mock duck ($2.25**), rolled layers of bean curd wrapped around black mushroom and lotus root, is delicious. Slivering radish with jellyfish makes a pleasant combination ($2.95). The preserved stomach ($1.95**) is not for the timid, nor is the host sauce that sets it ablaze. “Dispense this with an eyedropper,” advises the Rocky Mountain Sybarite. Suddenly Hoolok becomes a food machine run amok. Everything we’ve ordered is arriving at once and we’ve just tasted our cold dishes. With the flat, firm voice of a fifth-grade teacher, Colette cows three sulky waitresses into taking everything back to the kitchen. (I am practicing that voice – it will empty overbooked planes and clear blocked subway doors for sure.)

        Colette is ladling subgum casserole ($5.05**) – a heady broth full of shrimp with real flavor, sea slugs, squid, fish and pork balls, cabbage, and cellophane noodles. “This will calm your mouth,” she says. And it works. There are soft white buns stuffed with pork to slather with peppery bean curd ($.35*).
 “This is so peasanty,” says Colette. “I’m a peasant.”

         “I’m a born peasant too,” the aristocratic man on my left confides.

         How eager we are to be classified born peasants. It must be the new chic.

Hoolok Corporation, 54 East Broadway.

** Phoenix Garden

        Perhaps fame has spoiled Phoenix Garden. Or perhaps it has always been hazardous to order blindly here. At least no one has sold out to a crazed decorator. Phoenix Garden is still a stark cubbyhole in the Bowery Arcade with bare Formica tables and torn napkins (Chinatown is a linen graveyard, it seems). The waiters have not been to charm school. (When I complained of unsmiling indifference, Shun Lee’s Michael Tong bridged the cultural abyss. “The Chinese idea is, you’re hungry. We feed you. You pay. Americans want smiles. You want to be loved.”)

         Knowing mouths come to Phoenix Garden for pepper and salty shrimp, crisp in the shells ($5.95*) – a dish that calls for much licking of fingers – and fried fresh milk with crabmeat ($4.74*), an astonishingly ethereal rendition of milk custard and crab with crisp rice noodles. Roast duck is served lukewarm over white beans ($5.50). Mysterious innards come in a hot sauce ($3.50); conch is tossed with ginger and scallion ($5.50). But crabs with black bean ($3.95) and a scent of ginger are overcooked. Steamed pork ribs in an apricot sauce ($3.95) are tough and very sweet. And the house’s fabled crisp roast squab ($5.25) is not quite as glorious as it was before the squab farm burned down. But very few mouths are as fussy as mine. You may want to try it anyway.
Phoenix Garden, 15 Canal Arcade, between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery.

** Say Eng Look

         Say Eng Look and its Shanghai spicy persuasion is so popular it has spawned an annex across Chatham Square, Four-Five-Six. The menus and gentle prices are basically the same, and weekends, uninhibited aficionados weave around the tables, salivating and gathering menu recommendations as they stand. The champing troops and dearth of coat hooks make for a measure of claustrophobia.

        This is food New Yorkers love. And one Saturday at the height of the madness, we taste extraordinary “white-cooked” chicken ($2.95*), heady with flavor, moist as can be – sadly, a bit too cold. Fish wrapped in bean-curd sheet as crisp as strudel dough ($5.95) is delicately cooked, a joy. But the cold aromatic beef ($3.25) is dry and a bore. Scallops with crabmeat ($6.95) have a strange spoiled taste, and I find it hard to believe the scallops began life as scallops. For sheer superlatives, the fried fish with seaweed ($5.50) wins the prize for the Ugliest Chinese Dish in New York. “Hairy fish with teeth,” says one guest, taking out a camera to immortalize the moment. “It looks like the vacuum cleaner went into reverse,” observes another. “Its almost wonderful,” I cry, rather liking the crisp-fried seaweed, though the fish itself is too cooked for me. My friends are not persuaded. “It’s sad,” says the Rocky Mountain Sybarite. “I guess we won’t be able to save the starving world with seaweed after all.”

         A few weeks later on a quiet weeknight, the same crisp fish roll across the street at Four-Five-Six is a weary washout. Chinese mushroom with gluten “puff” and canned bamboo sheet ($4.95) is interesting but not very tasty. Family bean cakes ($3.25) are good enough to take the leftovers home for a workaholic mate.

Say Eng Look, 5 East Broadway, 212 732 0796.

*½ Szechuan Taste  

         New Yorkers love Szechuan Taste. From its humble launching as the flagship of the Szechuan invasion it has become an institution in Chatham Square. By now the menu is familiar. The staff is comfortable in two languages. And the house has acquired the sophistication for poetic printed explanations of why the food of this southwestern province is so spicy. It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and the ancient belief that “spices make the blood run faster… to protect from constant drizzles of rain.” Good to know we are protected from the window’s draft in our upstairs corner. There are cat hairs on the cloth, and the waiter is furious because we’ve ordered only three dishes for eight of us – “to start, to start,” I repeat, trying to orchestrate the pace of dinner. He sulks. But he is overworked.  

         In the warmth of Saturday night, one table trades counsel with another. Some trade tastes as well. “Skip the imperial shrimp ($5.70),” our neighbors advise. And “the broccoli in oyster sauce ($4.20) is wonderful.” Quite true. There is commendable variety of tastes and textures here. Some favorites are pepper-hot garlicky eggplant with pork ($4.20*); Chengdu shredded pork ($5.20*) with pickled cabbage, scallion, preserved bean curd, celery, and wonderful flavor; delicious orange-flavor chicken ($5), peppery hot with a tang of sesame; sliced leg of lamb ($5.50*); and noodles in an excess of peanutty hot sauce ($2). But beef with watercress ($5.50) suffers from a cheap cut of meat.

Szechuan Taste, 23 Chatham Square

*½ Lam Kee

         Lam Kee is but a closet-size pocket of home-style cooking. It isn’t easy to make a living on six tables, which is why the couples who have vacated their table for us are complaining to the waiter: “You served us too fast.” Here the fabled specialties are pork with bean-curd leaves tied into a knot and fava beans. Peering into the open kitchen we’ve seen shrimp in the shell and ask for them too. “Oh, no,” the waiter says. “Salty, too salty. You won’t like.” We insist. “Salty,” he shrills. The waitress holds up a saltshaker to make sure we get it. We are unmoved. Now the waiter attacks again: “This is all you order, three dishes; you take up big table.” He jots some figures in his notebook: $10.95. “This not enough.” He stands there, chin thrust forward, throwing ice water on my glorious notion that, armed with a list of the best dishes in Chinatown, half a dozen adventurers would enjoy a thrilling progressive dinner. But this is too thrilling.

        He’s intimidated us into ordering chicken with black mushrooms ($3.75) – breast of chicken with spikes of bamboo as well as mushrooms, deliciously flavored. The fava beans ($3.75*) are frozen – spring is their true season. The flavor is sublime and salty but the texture imperfect. Lam Kee’s braised fatty nubbins of pork ($3.95) with flat ribbons of bean leaves** - yes, they are actually knotted – is a homey dish. The cold cooked shrimp ($4.50*) are salty, very salty – the waiter watches, ready to pounce at any sign of cultural rejection – but no, here we sit, sucking the briny beasts out of the shell, munching on roe, pungent and good. He is still muttering as we pay the check, enjoying his own comic exaggeration, scolding us till the end.

Lam Kee, 3 Catherine Street.
  
*½ China Royal

         Fate has conspired against me at China Royal. I know how serious the kitchen is by the duck’s webs and shark’s fin, bird’s nest and innards, by the depth and breadth of the menu and regional Tai Leung specialties – fried milk and crispy fried milk, my own personal passions. Alas, at a latish supper in front of the illuminated moving falls of Niagara on the back wall, the service is careless and the food indifferent except for the best, most delicate shrimp balls ($5.50*) I can remember, and a competent rendition of salt-baked chicken ($6), moist and pink at the bone.

         Lunch at the height of the noontime hullabaloo is orchestrated by the manager himself. Even so, it is disappointing except for the sublime fried milk with crabmeat and ham ($4.25*) and a crunch of rice noodle, plus fried-milk fritters with sweet little pork ribs ($4.75*), marinated and then fried. While waiting, it was impossible to resist the dim sum trolley. We tasted good deep-fried bean-curd packages filled with shrimp*, and a celestial roll of shrimp with carrot and celery in a thin noodle dough (both $.90).

China Royal, 17 Division Street, 212 226 0788.

*½ No. 1 Chinese Restaurant

         Two or three memorable roast suckling pigs have passed through a life dedicated to sublime excess, but nothing to rival this magnificent barbecued beauty ($5*), its skin by some inspired alchemy both crackling and full of flavor, its flesh tasty and moist. For the transcendence of its pig alone, No. 1 Chinese Restaurant, in the carnival complex on Canal Street, is acquitted of narcissistic exaggeration in its name. Thank the great god of gluttony, the house sells its sainted piglet to go ($8 per pound) – because it can be tougher than rolling elephants uphill to get something to eat here.

         Survival is not so clearly a challenge when I join the spirited throngs of Chinese families at lunch in the yawning caverns because I have a guide, Florence Lin. Cheerleaders in blue jeans and clogs wheel trolleys of dim sum through the chaos and clamor, hawking chicken feet and taro cakes above the din. Two tables away, one of her advanced students of Chinese cooking spots Florence and sends over some goodies – sublimely tender squid ($4.50*), quick stir-fried and salty with ribbons of hot pepper. We respond with peppery chicken feet ($.90).

        Returning one evening at 9:30, we are greeted by a waiter who warns we’ll have half an hour to eat. There is an exchange of protests in two languages, reassurances from the manager, then an attempt to order crisp-fried squid. One after another, waiters step up to apply for credentials in English. None qualifies. I could be asking for the moon.

        “Suckling pig,” I try.

        “All finished,” they say.

        “Chicken?”

        The waiters shake their heads. “The kitchen is closed,” one of them says.

        “The kitchen can’t be closed,” I protest…. One of my guests interrupts – “He’s saying the chicken is closed.”

        Apologizing to my ravenous crew as all around us waiters slam the debris of the night onto trays, I struggle to get glasses of wine and then water. An oily, wet version of squid ($5) is served, tough curls with the biggest slices of ginger I’ve ever seen. There is also a carelessly hacked quality about the tripe with ginger and scallions ($4.50). I wonder if some sullen waiter is out there stir-frying his first dinner. The fried oysters ($5.25) are unremarkable but edible. Suddenly a vacuum cleaner’s roar fills the room. I ask a waiter to postpone the housekeeping.

        “Sorry,” he says. I beg the manager for a cease-fire.

        Now the waiters have apparently mutinied, because the manager himself brings watercress ($2.95) – “broiled lettuce” it says on the menu – and a crisp whole fried flounder ($5.95*), delicately cooked, garnished with sprigs of coriander. The whole chicken ($12*) is salt-baked and wonderfully moist, good enough to take home for chicken salad next day. When it becomes obvious we are leaving, a waiter melts enough to bring oranges sliced into eighths. As we leave, a horde of waiters fall on our table like piranhas.

No. 1 Chinese Restaurant, 202 Canal Street.
 
*½ Hunan Garden

         The waiters are so assimilated to American ways at Hunan Garden, a request for chopsticks may draw a blank stare. And a determined decorator has run amok with red-and-gold-flocked wallpaper where but a few weeks ago the ticky-tacky was positively dizzying. Calling ahead to order Peking duck and lobster in wine sauce, I invoke the name of a friend, a Chinatown habitué, with obvious impact. Hunan Garden is his favorite haunt. Perhaps that is why the dinner seems so disappointing.

        A gong strikes. Enter our duck ($15.50). And the amiable chef, San Wong himself, steps up to carve, skin and flesh together to wrap in pancakes, one act only (see Peking Duck story below)). The lobster ($13.50) is heady with ginger, but overcooked and not very interesting. Deep-fried batter-dipped oysters ($5*) are fresh and good with catsup-spiked sauce. The spiced shredded beef ($4.25) has a nice celery accent and a hot kick but no other flavor.

        At a later impromptu supper, a cold appetizer of spiced kidney ($2.95) is mealy and so unpleasantly strong that three kidney aficionados taste, then bypass it completely. The Tungan bean curd ($3.15) has a peppery afterglow and no other message. Orange-flavored chicken ($4.25) with giant patches of peel is innocent of orange flavor. But dried, spiced jack beans ($3.15*), though not as crisp as just plain old string beans, are very good. And Hunan Garden chow fun ($3.95*), a wonderful jumble of seafood with broad, bouncy noodles, is a winner.

Hunan Garden, 1 Mott Street.

* Foo Joy
 
         Foo Joy was once a shining outpost of Fukienese cooking in New York. Today, most of our town’s Fukien-born cooks have been spirited away into American seafood kitchens, and Foo Joy seems sadly demoralized. But there are still a few dishes decidedly worthy of a Chinatown excursion. The crackling crisp-fried fish rolls ($2.25*) – sweet white fish with bits of celery and onion, rolled in caul fat for a fast deep-fry – are wonderful. The kitchen does splendid fried flounder ($8*), crisp as can be yet barely cooked through, with threads of carrot and scallion, splashes of sauce. And for those not put off by bright-red meat and nuggets of pork fat, Fukienese pork chop in a tangy sweet scallion sauce ($3.75*) could become a fetish. There is an unusual wonton soup ($1.75), with a sublime sheer-noodle-wrapped dumpling and a fish ball wrapped around pork, but the fish tastes strong and the broth is weak. Fukienese shrimp ($4.95) in a sublime lemon-scented pool would be better if the shrimp were less cooked. Dishes that once were heavenly are lost in a limbo of indifference. The scene is Formica and klieg lights; the service can be comically inept. Our waiter sets dessert in the middle of a devastated fish platter. But when we hand him plates, he obediently carries them away.

Foo Joy, 13 Division Street.

***

         The following restaurants were not reviewed but are described for obvious virtue or some special dish.

         Driven by insatiable curiosity – and undrooping appetite – even as this deadline draws near, I decide I must find time to lunch at the celebrated seafood house Mon Hueng. A radio plays loud Chinese soap opera. Asked to name the house’s best dishes, the waiter shrugs. “Everyone in Chinatown cooks fish,” he says. Afraid he will petrify with boredom before our eyes, we ask for the owner. Mr. Lee basks in our compliments and orchestrates a delicious if somewhat monothematic lunch (black beans three times but wonderfully tangy black beans to be sure): perfectly steamed sea bass with scallion, ginger, and black bean ($6.75). Delicate “fish cakes” ($4.95) – almost quenelles, with artlessly hacked hunks of red and green peppers, scallion, and hot chilies with garlic and black bean. And black-beaned crabs ($4.75), slightly overdone, but very tasty. Fresh squid has been intricately scored for tenderness and to absorb the flavors of ginger and scallion and a pleasant wok taste.

         Mon Hueng serves no desserts at all – not even canned litchis – so Mr. Lee sends us around Bayard Street to the Mei Lai Wah coffee house, where we have excellent coffee and pastries best quickly forgotten.

Mon Hueng Seafood House, 18 Elizabeth Street.

                                                                                    ***

         Spirited followers of the Szechuan faith long ago discovered Hwa Yuan, with its masterfully steamed carp in a pungent hot sauce ($6.25*), refreshing pork-and-radish soup ($2.25), tripe with scallions and ginger ($4.50), zestily spiced eggplant ($3.95), and hot, sliced ginger shrimp ($6.95). The cold delicacies are more primitive here than the best uptown – meats and birds together, less carefully cut – but the sauces can be wonderful, especially the nutty dynamite gloss on the “wonderful taste chicken” ($3.95*).

         But for now let’s simply celebrate the best steaming casserole tasted on this crusade: Hwa Yuan’s pork meatballs in an earthenware pot ($7.95, enough for eight) – fluffy meatballs, black mushrooms, bamboo, and cellophane noodles in a powerful broth. Service is polite but perfunctory. And upstairs in the family room on Sunday there are squalling babies, take-home boxes to fill yourself, and no clearing of debris.
Hwa Yuan, 40 East Broadway

         “The best place for barbecued duck in Chinatown is Little Italy,” says one of my Chinese guides, obviously pleased to spring that geographical amazement. But it is after noon and already impossible to get into Wong Kee, a clean, bright store front in the Golan Heights of Chinatown. Chinese of all ages press into the nonexistent waiting space, snaking out the double doors into the chilly street. Wong Kee is lunch-counter feeding at communal tables. That is, no one shares dishes. Everyone has his own plate – mostly what the menu lists as “over rice” dishes. And with no rice bowl to list toward the mouth for efficient chopstick feeding, everyone uses a fork. You might order pork over rice or pork and beef over rice, or beef and broccoli – over-rice dishes are tagged at $1.50 to $2.75.

         As our guide struggles to get barbecued duck to go, we watch one man use chopsticks to arrange food on the fork. Another abandons his fork and uses a porcelain soup spoon as a surrogate rice bowl, filling it with the chopsticks. We take our carryout sack to Hong Gung, where we snag steamed fried goodies from the dim sum trolley and taste Wong Kee’s sublime roast pork ($2.95) and juicy fat chicken ($2.95) with a spicy ginger sauce. 

         The barbecued duck ($2.95) is good too. Too bad it got soggy in the container.

Wong Kee, 117 Mott Street.

                                                                                 ***
 
        It is ten at night during another attempt at a progressive dinner, when someone voices a yearning for juicy pork buns, small noodle bundles that hold a puddle of liquid surrounding a meatball. Each little dumpling must be lifted tenderly from the bamboo steamer, carefully, so the skin won’t be pierced with chopsticks. Into the mouth it goes – whole – there to burst forth the essence of its broth. Temple Garden is open, deserted but cordial. This is a tourist-savvy spot, all red on red with “carved” Chinese intaglio, a long list of bartender tricks – from apricot sour to zombie – and a menu of current favorites from the Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Cantonese repertoires. Though the dumplings ($2.95 per order) are thrilling as anticipated and pretty on green leaves in the steamer and the curry puffs ($2.50) are fresh and crisp, the shrimp toast ($2.75) tastes of too long an embalmment, and sweet-and-sour chicken ($4.95) is a relic of a fifties high school prom.

Temple Garden, 16 Pell Street.

                                                                                 ***

                                                            Stalking the Peking Duck

         Peking duck evokes a puzzling ambivalence in me. I love the theater of this great Northern Chinese cuisinary adventure in three acts: the crisp skin cut in patches and wrapped in a pancake, the flesh shredded and stir-fried, the carcass simmered into a soup. At least that’s the tradition. In New York, soup is almost always an option. Costly, from $15 and up, usually requiring 24 hours’ advance notice, Peking duck has its own passionate mystique. In Chinese gastronomy, authors Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin compare Peking duck to a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich in its distinction between textures and delicate flavors. And it’s true. The crisp crunch of the skin in its pancake or “doily” – pao ping in Mandarin – in an inspired contribution to the art of the sandwich. The skin is the point here. It must be crisp and dry. In China, to make the skin dry faster, air is pumped between skin and flesh through a hole under the duck’s wing. Here, alcohol is used to draw out the moisture. Gin and sugar syrup or honey are rubbed on the duck for color and taste. And the bird hangs to dry for 24 hours, ideally in a cold, stiff breeze. I’ve used a vacuum cleaner in reverse. Cooking teacher Lilah Kan suggests a hair dryer set on “cool.”

         The first course is a high-wire act. Too quickly the skin is gone. Then comes the duck meat, shredded and stir-fried, almost always an anticlimax. Peking duck, I sigh. Is that all there is? Not since the albatross has a bird been given such an extraordinary press. Or maybe Peking duck is like marriage – three or four tries in one lifetime may be enough for any adventurer.

         Shun Lee Palace produces the best Peking duck ($21 for act one only, no notice required; $2 more per person for three acts, 24 hours’ notice). The skin is crisp, fat-free, and delicately flavored. Scallion pom-poms, to dip into an elegantly doctored hoisin sauce, get rolled inside thin wheat doilies. The second act – shredded duck stir-fried with bean sprouts, bell pepper, and ginger – is unexciting. The duck taste gets lost. Many gluttonous moments later, when most everyone has eaten too much, the soup arrives to a chorus of groans. But no one can resist that blissful potion with its hearty duck essence, delicate pale curls of cabbage, cellophane noodles, and islands of shimmering bean curd.

         Pearl’s Peking duck ($37.50, 24 hours’ notice) is the most beautiful, its skin the shiny lacquered mahogany of a Louis XVI escritoire, crisp, but sadly without flavor. The skin is served Cantonese style, with buns that taste a little like unbrowned Parker House rolls, to split and dab with hoisin. As we taste the second course – the duck stir-fried with black mushroom, bamboo, water chestnut, and a peppery kick (we asked for that) – the Wall Street Voluptuary dismisses the performance with a disdainful gesture. “I’ll show you a Peking duck that will thrill you.”

         “Now?” I say, a quiver of conflicts. After all, we’ve just chopsticked our way through seven courses. But my scholarly soul, my gourmand’s spirit, are hungry as always for adventure. Off we go to David K’s, where Peking duck ($28) is available on immediate command. The Voluptuary’s wife recommends scotch sours as a palate refresher between ducks. That helps. One of our guests, a man who has just tasted his first Peking duck, cannot believe he is about to taste his second. Naturally, the house insists on a suitable prologue: splendid, garlicky minced squab in lettuce packages ($9.75). To gentle numbed appetites, slices of duck skin and flesh are served together, wrapped in elegant thin pancakes – the skin not quite Louis XVI, but crisp and definitely full of flavor… a flavor I’m not sure I like. Camphor, I think. “Ginger and sugar,” host Norman Chi reports. Normally here the duck meat is shredded and stir-fried with bean sprouts, scallion, ginger, and red pepper in sherry and soy (or the kitchen will bow to the customer’s direction). Cognoscenti ask for the soup finale. They get ginger-and-red-date-scented Peking consommé with Chinese cabbage and a sprinkling of scallion.

         At Hunan Garden on Mott Street, a gong is struck as the chef himself emerges from the kitchen to carve the Peking duck ($15.50). First he slashes away at the legs and the wing joints – “For the ladies,” he says. It is one of those old-fashioned sexist gestures I adore. But my consciousness-raised friends are already sharing theirs. The legs are rose-pink and ethereal. The wings, cooked through, are tasty too. But the skin, sliced with the meat, then wrapped with scallion and hoisin in a thickish pancake, though delicious, is, quite frankly, a mere shrug in the annals of gastronomy.

         Not since the genius of the instant hamburger brought us McDonald’s has a more inspired notion emerged than the instant Peking duck. The fast-food duckling is a powerful magnet at the Peking Duck House (22 Mott Street). There is a crowd waiting for tables at 9:40 Saturday night and uninhibited trenchermen whooping it up, guzzling scotch and self-toted wine.

         Again, there’s a chef to carve every duck ($17). Each cutting of skin comes attached to moist, delicious flesh. A steamer of primitive doilies sits on the table, beside a compote of thick hoisin and a dish of slivered scallion plus cucumber sticks, a decidedly pleasant addition. It’s Peking duck, I suppose, but the thrill is blurred.

         I’m still ambivalent about Peking duck. It could be a jaded palate. And it could be the emperor’s clothes. 

                                                                                     ***
 
                                                                  My All Time Favorite Dishes

-    Cold delicacies, hot-and-sour soup, tangy spicy fish in Hunan hot sauce, heavenly fish fillets, and calf’s liver with spinach at Shun Lee Palace
-    Crisp suckling pig at No. 1 Chinese Restaurant    
-    Vegetable packages, sliced kidney with ginger sauce, sliced lamb with leeks in hot-pepper sauce, orange beef, monkey’s head with bok choy or asparagus, and drunken crab at Fortune Garden
-    Salty fried squid at Tung Sing
-    Dim Sum at Hee Seung Fung
-    Fried milk with crabmeat at Phoenix Garden
-    Eggs with hot sauce at Pearl’s
-    Duck liver with pork sausage with steamed Chinese broccoli at Canton
-    Mongolian hot pot and minced squab in lettuce leaves at David K’s
-    Rice-paper seafood packages, winter-melon soup for a banquet, and Aberdeen shrimp in No. 1 broth at HSF
 
                                                                                    ***

                                                                       What a Dumpling!

        Dim sum is the great folk art of China. Dim sum – literally, dot heart… or, poetically, heart’s delight – can be a nibbler’s nirvana and pig heaven, an unending parade of dumplings, buns, and noodle packages filled with meats and sweets that are the classic tea lunch. In Hong Kong, a businessman often staggers appointments over dim sm, sharing fried bread and turnip cake with his lawyer, tripe and bean-curd packages with the accountant, sticky rice and duck feet with a mendicant brother-in-law. Dim sum is eaten for breakfast too, in congee shops and luncheonettes as well as teahouses.

        Come early. By noon the popular dim sum parlors are crowded and sound like a high school lunchroom. Waitresses trundle carts between tables, calling out their offerings. Some sell hard. Others chant. A few are shy, sure you won’t be interested in fish maw or stomach. You may be asked what kind of tea you would like. Jasmine and litchi are light and perfumed. Dragon Well (loan jang) is a green tea. And boa lee (po nay) is called “Chinese Alka-seltzer” because it cuts grease and counteracts excess. Try for a table near the kitchen: The food will be hotter. If you see a full tray of dumplings, you can assume they are fresh… a gathering of leftovers may be lukewarm. Even if everything looks irresistible, resist. There’ll be more later.

        Even at its flashiest Day-Glo orange and gold, Hee Seung Fung was my inevitable dim sum asylum – apt word: It’s a bedlam weekends, when dining rooms both sides of the Arcade at 46 Bowery fill with Chinese families, dim-sum-ing and noodling. Now HSF has a whitewashed tranquility, aftermath of a winter fire, but in the din and clamor you may not notice. HSF does over 65 varieties of dim sum with the tedious hand labor that thrives in Chinatown’s immigrant economy. Saturday afternoon there are at least twenty men and women in the kitchen shaping pork forcemeat into nubbins and sealing them in wonton skins, filling a skyscraper of steamers, stir-frying dumplings and tiny fingers of shrimp roll. One man spreads a sheet of rice noodle on a towel, presses it in a steamer, arranges two rows of minced beef, peels the noodle away from the towel, rolls, cuts… a painstaking relay that produces six rice-noodle packages – at three for $1.

        Try the stuffed crab claw, extraordinary paper shrimp, vegetarian egg roll in soft bean-skin wrapper, stuffed green pepper, dumplings with quail egg, anything wrapped in slurpy rice noodle, delicious har kow and beef Sidebar: What a Dumpling!

        Dim sum is the great folk art of China. Dim sum – literally, dot heart… or, poetically, heart’s delight – can be a nibbler’s nirvana and pig heaven, an unending parade of dumplings, buns, and noodle packages filled with meats and sweets that are the classic tea lunch. In Hong Kong, a businessman often staggers appointments over dim sm, sharing fried bread and turnip cake with his lawyer, tripe and bean-curd packages with the accountant, sticky rice and duck feet with a mendicant brother-in-law. Dim sum is eaten for breakfast too, in congee shops and luncheonettes as well as teahouses.

        Come early. By noon the popular dim sum parlors are crowded and sound like a high school lunchroom. Waitresses trundle carts between tables, calling out their offerings. Some sell hard. Others chant. A few are shy, sure you won’t be interested in fish maw or stomach. You may be asked what kind of tea you would like. Jasmine and litchi are light and perfumed. Dragon Well (loan jang) is a green tea. And boa lee (po nay) is called “Chinese Alka-seltzer” because it cuts grease and counteracts excess. Try for a table near the kitchen: The food will be hotter. If you see a full tray of dumplings, you can assume they are fresh… a gathering of leftovers may be lukewarm. Even if everything looks irresistible, resist. There’ll be more later.

        Even at its flashiest Day-Glo orange and gold, Hee Seung Fung was my inevitable dim sum asylum – apt word: It’s a bedlam weekends, when dining rooms both sides of the Arcade at 46 Bowery fill with Chinese families, dim-sum-ing and noodling. Now HSF has a whitewashed tranquility, aftermath of a winter fire, but in the din and clamor you may not notice. HSF does over 65 varieties of dim sum with the tedious hand labor that thrives in Chinatown’s immigrant economy. Saturday afternoon there are at least twenty men and women in the kitchen shaping pork forcemeat into nubbins and sealing them in wonton skins, filling a skyscraper of steamers, stir-frying dumplings and tiny fingers of shrimp roll. One man spreads a sheet of rice noodle on a towel, presses it in a steamer, arranges two rows of minced beef, peels the noodle away from the towel, rolls, cuts… a painstaking relay that produces six rice-noodle packages – at three for $1.

        Try the stuffed crab claw, extraordinary paper shrimp, vegetarian egg roll in soft bean-skin wrapper, stuffed green pepper, dumplings with quail egg, anything wrapped in slurpy rice noodle, delicious har kow and beef shiu mei, phoenix roll (a weekend specialty) – shrimp and bamboo shoots rolled in egg crêpe, then wrapped in dough. I like the fried, shrimp-stuffed bean curd too; spicy squid; and garlicky spareribs in black-bean sauce. The coconut bar is surprisingly pleasant. Egg-custard tarts have a lard finish in the pastry you may not mind. As your eyes glaze and your stomach says stop, a waitress will count your empty saucers and steamers and charge by number. Most items are two or three for $1. HSF has a dim sum brochure for informed selection… if they haven’t run out. Carry-out too. Dim sum daily 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. No credit cards. (Much of the same splendid dim sum is served uptown, at HSF on Second Avenue – from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., priced from $1.35 to $2.)

        Hong Gong at 30 Pell is the dim sum connection of choice among my Chinese friends. It’s crowded but friendly, with astonishing color photographs of the Eiffel Tower, Victoria Falls and Zermatt. The kitchen makes its own noodle dough, delicate shrimp har kow, and a rather disappointing spring roll… crackling skin but meager filling. That hairy oval is fried taro with savory meat in the middle. And there is sticky rice in the lotus leaf. Also excellent steamed buns. Dim sum daily 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. No credit cards.

        No. 1 Chinese Restaurant, upstairs at 202 Canal, is cavernous and noisy (see review above), the dim sum are spiced with flash but sometimes a bit careless in texture. The vegetarian-egg-roll skin should be softer. But the ribs with ginger, garlic, and flecks of red pepper are dynamite. A minced-shrimp patty flecked with coriander has crisp matchsticks of taro pressed into it – very smart. “It’s like the nouvelle cuisine,” says my Chinese guide. “You learn the classic, then you experiment. But you cannot go too far.” The slippery noodle cloaking minced meat and vegetables is very tasty. Beef balls with watercress get a splash of Worcestershire from the waitress. “Worcestershire?” I ask. “Oh yes, very big in Hong Kong,” my guide says. “A legacy from the British.” A giant steamer of buns is approaching. We order one sweet and one salty – two stuffed balls of crustless Wonder Bread. Dim Sum here costs $.90 per saucer. Dim sum daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. No credit cards.

        Other sources for dim sum are China Royal, 17 Division Street, reviewed above (dim sum daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and that venerable institution Nom Wah, 13 Doyers Street (dim sum daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)

                                                                                      ***

                               The 1,000-Year-Old Egg and I: Breakfast in Chinatown

        No doubt many Chinese-Americans begin the day with Tang and Total and instant coffee, lemon yogurt or bagel and cream cheese, like the rest of us. But the traditional breakfast  is congee, a hot rice gruel flavored with bits of raw fish or meat, accompanied by fried bread and salty savories or sesame buns. As an ancient and honorable art in China, cuisine has its aesthetic principles. The highest order of cooking relies on pure flavor. The highest order of flavor, write the Lins in Chinese Gastronomy, is plain flavor, “too complex to be counterfeited.” That brings us at once to rice. “No cook has ever been foolish enough to try to recreate the flavor of rice,” they observe. “The rich love congee… an affected simplicity.” Like designer blue jeans.

        At Hao Shih Chieh, 15 Catherine Street, we’re a little late for breakfast dumplings. A wonderfully flavored shrimp ball ($.80*) is cold. So is a delicious fried dumpling ($.80*). But I’m so pleased with the turnip cake ($.80**) – studded with sausage and dried shrimp – I’m eating it lukewarm. Now our congee ($.90) arrives, steaming, a perfect fuel for a winter morning. Best with bits of 1,000-year-old egg. The egg, cured in a kind of limey clay – not for a thousand years, a romantic exaggeration; six weeks is more like it – emerges firm with its white turned deep blue-brown, its yolk a shimmering opalescent green.

        It says Wonton Specialist on the sign at 3 Doyers Street, but the passion here extends to congee, tripe, noodles, muscles, and turnips, prices mostly at $2.25 or less. The menu notes, in Chinese, that turnips may be added to certain dishes without charge. Congee is blander here and more integrated, but good with bits of fish and threads of ginger, $1.85.

        By now gourmand appetites ought to be flagging, but no, our hunger is merely tickled, aroused now for mid-morning dim sum at Hee Seung Fung (see above). The dumplings start rolling here at 7 a.m. (the kitchen does congee too). Waitresses are trundling through with spicy spareribs in black bean. I have a feeling breakfast is about to blur into lunch.

                                                                                  ***

                                                        The Mayor Who Came to Dinner

        We met at New York’s Christmas party. He was tall and ruddy and dimpled. “I hear you are a Chinese-restaurant enthusiast,” I said. He nodded. “I’d love it if we could have dinner together,” I said. Hurrah for liberation. He wrote my phone number in his little black book. Flashbulbs popped. And that’s how I happened to be clicking chopsticks at Joy Garden with Ed Koch.

        The mayor brought two bottles of a modest Bordeaux and some Perrier. I brought Beaujolais nouveau.

        The mayor’s senior advisor on culinary matters had ordered ahead. We were eight. He’d ordered for twenty. This is how budgets get out of hand. I got depressed watching all that food going back into the kitchen. Especially when I saw the bill, $124 before the tip. But one of the mayor’s chums – a wealthy and charming gastronome – walked away with a big brown bag of leftovers, and my spirits revived.

        When Joy Garden isn’t gilding whole hogs to honor its favorite son, it’s a humble little second-story walk-up where two can wallow in chop suey heaven for a pittance. Joy Garden is déjà vu – the moo goo gai pan of your childhood revisited – with subgum egg foo young and chicken chow mein and family dinners at $3.95 per person, one from column A, one from column B. Proprietor Lester Eng is proud of the “famous lemon chicken” ($6.50) and “delicious lemon duck” ($7.50), the curried chicken wings ($3.75), and live crab “in our delicious sauce” ($4.50). But Ed Koch long ago discovered that the real joy in Joy Garden is exploring beyond the menu.

        “I think Chinese is the greatest cuisine in the world,” the mayor confided. “It has such depth and complexity, such great contrasts. My palate isn’t good enough to really appreciate the subtlety of French cooking.” We chewed on giant crisp-fried wonton, tastily stuffed, as Koch described his first encounter with silken rich foie gras on a recent trip to Paris. “Would that every chicken had a liver like that.” The salt-baked chicken, presented head cocked toward Koch, was moist and tender. But the masterwork of the evening was juicy pork loin, barely Chinese in character, with bright green broccoli vibrant against deep mahogany sauce. After tender clams with scallions in a tame black-bean sauce came Chinese vegetables and then two crisp-fried flounders, salty and faintly aromatic. “Bella was here last week,” said a mayoral confidant. “Did you tell her about this place?”

        “I never advice Bella on anything,” Ed replied.

        By then we could only taste the finale, lo hon jai, Chinese vegetables with fermented bean curd and slithery cellophane noodles. But everyone revived for “special dessert” – a hill of ice cream balls, chocolate and vanilla, with canned litchis, kumquats, and fortune cookies, a curiously refreshing hodge-podge. “See yourself in a clean mirror and not a fogged one,” the mayor’s fortune cookie urged. Mine filled me with euphoria: “You have inherited the earth, go and enjoy what has been given to you.” I do and I shall.

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