Due to CT’s new job, we weren’t able to make it to New Jersey to celebrate Diwali with her family like we did last year. As such, we celebrated on our own by checking out the recently opened Cafe China close to our apartment. It has gotten brief mentions by the New York Times and Grub Street, so we knew we had to try it eventually.
The restaurant is on an odd block in Murray Hill, but pretty close to favorites Szechuan Gourmet and Lan Sheng. The owners made the restaurant into a 1930’s Shanghai theme with a variety of regional dishes. After we walked in, I thought Dr. Jones and Short Round would be coming too. The restaurant filled up nicely for a quiet and chilly Wednesday evening.
We were excited to see that the restaurant offers a couple varieties of Dim Sum dishes, but priced a lot higher than Nom Wah. We chose one of these dishes; Pork dumplings in chili oil ($6). There were five or six dumplings with nice thin skins. The chili oil was quite delicious and complex since it wasn’t pure heat. It also had some sweetness which paired perfectly with the porky innards of the dumplings.
CT says: Delicious! The pork inside wasn’t too flavorful, but after soaking up the saucy goodness, it was great! Just enough spice to kick-start your palette without taking over.
We also started with the Cold Noodles Szechuan Style ($6). The sauce with the noodles was super spicy. Even CT started coughing from it. The noodles had the perfect amount of chew. Usually when I order this dish or ones similar, the noodles are pretty mushy, so it was a nice surprise. This was much hotter than the dumplings sauce.
CT says: Awesome! I always assume cold dishes won’t be as spicy, even when deep down I know I’m wrong. And wrong I was… this was super spicy and I loved every bite of it. It was even more deceiving though because the spice was on the bottom, so it looked so innocent when it reached the table. But a few tosses with the chopsticks later and get ready to burn. Yum!
For entree’s we had the Mapo Tofu ($11) and Tea Smoked Duck ($19).
This was a very good preparation of the Mapo Tofu. It had a ton of flavor and heat but could have used a bit more ground pork. Since our mouths were still cooling off from our appetizers, we didn’t end up eating much of this at the restaurant. Our waiter wrapped it for us and we found the next day we used the traditional cardboard Chinese takeout box for this. This resulted in the sauce and oil soaking through the box and into the bag. How could our waiter have thought this was a good idea? At least put the saucy leftovers in a soup container! Now I will have to remember to check my leftovers before putting the bag in the fridge.
CT says: The flavors were awesome but the portion was HUGE! I felt like we kept eating and the bowl kept refilling itself! As TT mentioned, I wouldn’t have complained with a little more pork, but the tofu absorbed all the flavors and did a great job. Soft enough to melt in your mouth but not fall apart in your chopsticks. My only complaint was that the sauce seemed a bit gloppy… however, it wasn’t noticeable once mixed up with rice, so I didn’t care too much.
We also had a choice of white or brown rice. We didn’t what any good non-Chinese person would do and got brown rice.
The Tea Smoked Duck sounded very interesting and it was. It ended up being super smokey and the flavor lingered for quite a while. I felt as if I was eating traditional BBQ, that’s how smoky it was. The chopped pieces of duck were hit or miss; some had nice crispy skin and fully rendered fat while others not so much. The accompanying sauce, which might have been hoison, added a sweetness to cut some of the smoke and fattiness. It was a pretty large portion too; more than enough for two. I would hesitate to order this again unless I knew that they cooked the whole duck properly.
CT says: My first few pieces were great – crispy skin and very prevalent smoky tea flavor. However, it went downhill pretty fast. The remaining pieces had way too much un-rendered fat and the skin was hard and chewy. Plus I felt like I had smoke in my throat long after. Not altogether bad, but I wouldn’t order it again.
Since it was a holiday, we both ordered dessert. I know you are thinking “Dessert in a Chinese restaurant? Aren’t sliced oranges enough?” but they had some interesting sorbets and gelatos. The dessert menu was small and a bit pricey, but worth a try.
CT ordered the lychee sorbet ($7). It wasn’t as sweet as you would expect.
CT says: It was yummy and actually tasted even better with a few spoons of TT’s ginger mixed in! However, I probably wouldn’t order it again at that price. Only since it was a special occasion.
I ordered the ginger gelato ($6). As you can see, this came with a huge slice of fresh ginger on top. It tasted as if they made this in-house. It was very fresh and creamy with bits of fresh ginger throughout. This was a good digestif, but I would probably pass on dessert the next time I go.
By the time we were finished, the restaurant was quite busy so the small staff was running all over the place which meant it took a long time to get our check. Once we got it, we saw we were presented with some Wrigley’s gum. This was a nice touch. Even the gum wrapped had a vintage look to go with the decor of the restaurant.
All in all, Cafe China is a welcomed restaurant to the neighborhood. We were quite happy with most of the food even counting the packaging gaffe. Prices were a bit high, but not terrible for the neighborhood. Happy Diwali!