June 13, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Qi Bangkok Eatery: Versailles on Eighth Avenue
Finding Qi Bangkok Eatery in the residual sleaze of Eighth Avenue. Photo: Steven Richter
There was a time in the 70s when cautious New Yorkers avoided sleazy, scarifying Eighth Avenue near 42nd Street. Then I got a crush on a porn star who recited Shakespeare. It was the disco era and I occasionally found myself at 3 a.m., flushed from hours of feverish dancing, cringing in the glare of an all-night grocery while the guy bought the Times and a white grapefruit for his breakfast. Stoned druggies zombied by and teenage blonde hustlers from the Midwest glared. For a quarter you could see a naked woman shimmying in the burlesque house between 42nd and 43rd, a few steps from the adult film shop where I’m standing now, buffeted by clobbers of tourists bulging out of tank tops and polyester bustiers. Looking for dinner. Looking for Qi Bangkok Eatery.
Unexpected fantasy where there used to be burlesque and porn. Photo: Steven Richter
Amazingly, it is right here, blinding bling wedged into the residual sleaze. You can’t really miss the exquisite Thai face in the photograph alongside the door. Inside, the place is sheathed in white marble, shiny embossed plasterwork, white leather with electrified crystal candelabras encased in plastic – something between Versailles and a Vegas spa.
Drinks and snacks for two at a tower of Lucite. Photo: Steven Richter
Two young women perch on clear plastic stools at a tall Lucite tower, their thighs framing the dazzle of crystal between their legs. Otherwise, the long narrow room is almost empty, the precious sculpted Buddha and embroidered dancers languishing in this unappreciative zip code. The staff seems pleased to have live specimens to practice on.
Is it a Vegas spa? A chandelier showroom? A nail salon? Photo: Steven Richter
Belatedly, a host leads us under a tight chorus line of glittering lights to a communal plastic table where we are seated, two on one side, two opposite, in see-through plastic chairs, framed for privacy by candelabra in plastic boxes. “It’s a nail spa,” says Zarela. “We should be drying our nails under the crystal lamps.”
Since I’ve yet to visit Bangkok, this stage set will have to do for me. Photo: Steven Richter
For my friend, the wedding and party planner, there is instant recognition. “This looks like one of my after-party settings at an extravagant wedding. See the chairs? Same chairs that I use.”
Shall we flee or stick it out? At least it’s bright enough to read the menu. “Bangkok Selection by Pichet Ong,” it says. That’s what brought us here. I’m eager to gauge the Ong effect, to taste the savory home cooking of the pastry wizard who redefined Asian desserts at Spice Market.
The kitchen does Arabesques too: Don’t snag a sleeve on a crystal dangle. Photo: Steven Richter
The ginger margarita, not too sweet, softens my mood but doesn’t make the complicated menu of specials and specialties less confusing. I suspect this is the first shift for our server too. But it quickly becomes clear there is no confusion in the kitchen.
In a history of green papaya salad, I’ve never had one this good. Photo: Steven Richter
This is the best green papaya salad I’ve ever tasted. I order this dish whenever it’s offered and it might come with string beans, cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts, but it’s never this elegant, the fruit flavored and softened by blanching, the dressing a glaze of sweet, hot, sour and bitter – that’s Ong’s mantra, he tells me when I check to be sure it’s his food and not just his name.
That’s a fish sauce tang in the traditional grilled tiger prawns. Photo: Steven Richter
Still, I don’t understand why “Authentic Bites” (small individual servings at $4.50) are offered in condiment size. “Most famous Northern Thai dish,” grilled Chiang Mai pork sausage with crisps of pork skin and spicy long chiles, is delicious but why so small? And what do paper napkins say about this crystal temple experience?
Alas, there is the fatal chile divide in our foursome. Half of us like it hot, the other half do not. Our server is not equipped to guide us. Indeed, almost everything we order seems torrid to the abstainers. The Road Food Warrior looks betrayed, discovering that even his tuna tartare has a fiery after-blast.
Stir fried rice noodles with a collection of excellent vegetables. Photo: Steven Richter
I assure him the marvelous ruffled pan-fried kee moo noodles with a great mix of vegetables in a spicy basil sauce is “almost bland,” though it isn’t. He’s not fooled for a minute, but we both love the sticky rice noodles, so he toughs it out.
Charcoal grilled heads-on tiger prawns are perfectly cooked and wreathed in fish sauce with a torrid burn from garlic, lime and chile. Five-spice honey-glazed ribs and a luscious smoke-touched toss of Japanese eggplant with minced shrimp and chicken are gentler.
The duck is not an afterthought in this Penang curry: it’s the star. Photo: Steven Richter
Dried bird’s eye chiles in the fiery red turmeric pork curry make it almost too hot for me, though the tapestry of galangal, lemongrass, coconut and shrimp paste is thrilling. In even the best Thai restaurants, brilliant sauces tend to mask overcooked fish and meat. But here the duck is crusty, juicy and moist; the Penang curry a seductive blend of kaffir lime, coconut milk, peanuts and chile heat with notes of cumin and nutmeg.
So two of us are gasping, eyes tearing, and two of us are marveling. “This is really good,” I cry, tasting the Chu Chee curry grilled tiger prawns striped with coconut cream. Wishing we’d ordered the green jackfruit curry pork rib, the lotus stalk fish curry and something in a clay pot from entrees $9.90 to $24 (lunch specials start at $7.95). But I’m all too human and can’t eat everything, given what the timid have left behind.
Kaffir lime, chile and coconut cream accent curry grilled tiger prawns. Photo: Steven Richter
The trick is to persuade our wounded two to linger for dessert. Our party planner has already scratched her hand on a decorative fringe of crystal pendants on the way to the ladies room. “We can sue later,” I promise.
Zarela wants to taste the coconut milk cake with rum cream, lychee and jackfruit because it sounds like a Latin tres leche. I’m amused to see Ong exercising his mantra in the tamarind pudding, blending blueberry with salty cream and chile. The surprise is I actually like it. We sign off on $250 and head for the door.
It’s a shock to return to the grim of Eighth Avenue.
I’d like to go back to taste more of that wonderful food. But I probably won’t. Certainly not with the Road Food Warrior. Maybe with Zarela if she puts together some hotheads.
“I don’t care if it looks like a nail salon,” she says. “I’m definitely going back.”
675 Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Street. 212 247 8991. Lunch 11 am to 3:30 pm. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11pm. Friday and Saturday till 1 am.
Scouting Old Shanghai Deluxe
A brightly lit open restaurant on the corner draws wandering crowds. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s been a few years since I ventured to Chinatown. Once it was a cinch to eat well there. Now it’s devouring little Italy and has become a mystery to me. When I want Chinese food, I go to Chinatown Brasserie or Shun Lee and, sometimes, to Flushing. But there’s a spot that might be good, according to Eddie Schoenfeld, the sage of Chinese cookery in our crowd – in countdown now to opening Red Farm, with dumpling wizard Joe Ng, in the West Village.
I didn’t say they were pretty but the soupy buns are definitely good. Photo: Steven Richter
Good…okay. Good is good enough. I’m game. Old Shanghai Deluxe is crowded. But Eddie has reserved. It’s Saturday night and tourists swarm. “Also, it’s on the corner of Mott and Bayard,” he says, “And people can see in the windows.”
Of course Old Shanghai is shockingly bright. (I have adjusted my eye-liner in anticipation). And the menu goes on and on for pages with Shanghai dishes and everything else. We give Eddie power to order.
This crisp and flaky turnip pastry is big enough to share but I want it all. Photo: Steven Richter
There’s a certain elegance here too. Polite servers in black tunics with red and gold embroidered bibs are not tossing the food at you with the visible disdain I’ve noticed elsewhere, as if to say, “White Ghosts, we don’t need you.” It doesn’t hurt that Eddie has been tossing out select Mandarin phrases.
The house claims history back to 1862 in the Qing Dynasty, with the flavors of the Yangtze River: fish in spring, shrimp in summer, crab in autumn and herring in winter. That means tonight we will have fish fillet in white wine, astonishingly fresh, silken and firm – it could almost be Dover sole – more realistically flounder, Eddie suggests – and it is served with rubbery tree ears, for a contrast of texture and color.
First our quartet will divide a scallion pancake, greasy yet unusually good, impossible to resist as we drag it through black vinegar-soy. The Shanghai soupy buns are better than most, though our attempt at eating greenery – pea sprout dumplings – proves so grassy, we’re sending four of them back to the kitchen.
When eggplant with minced pork is cooked well, it tastes like this one. Photo: Steven Richter
The oversized $3.95 turnip cake would be enough for most sharing foursomes if I didn’t want it all for myself. It’s rich lard dough is flaky and delicious. Let’s not get too carried away. As reported, the food is good, not great and not consistent. The crispy duck is dry and flavorless. But we all love voluptuous eggplant with minced pork. Rice cakes are a Rorschach test too: you like them or you don’t. I love that gummy texture, especially tonight, just a little bit spicy, with slivers of pork, chicken and onion.
Chow fun fans will love Shanghai rice noodles with pork and chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
Since no one is drinking, not even a beer, dinner costs $20 a person. Is that an enticement? I needed to taste more myself, but I’m not rushing back. Perhaps if it were walking distance from where I live, I’d be tempted. After dinner we wander through a few stores looking for a Chanel bag. No one will admit to having one. Then we get to show some lost tourists how wonderful New Yorkers are by walking them to where they have parked their car and lost it.
60 Mott Street on the corner of Bayard. 212 566 4884. Sunday through Thursday 10:30 am to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday to midnight.