Cafe China is now open in a new location

Eleven years ago, when Cafe China opened on the edge of Murray Hill, a short walk from the Morgan Library, it caused an outcry. While Chinese cuisine has always been a common lunch option among office workers in this commercial district, this place has added Sichuan specialties to its mostly Cantonese menu, and the dishes have been a huge hit. Soon the neighborhood was a nest of Chinese restaurants offering Sichuan options, and it was one of the first factors that helped Sichuan evolve into New York’s favorite Chinese cuisine.

Coffee China in 2013.

A facade with a giant round window visible at the top and scaffolding obscuring the front.

The newer and more elegant facade is still in progress.

A few years later, the same team of Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang opened the first China Blue in 2014 in Tribeca, which continued a Shanghainese program (and closed in 2020), as well as the Sichuan restaurant Birds of a Feather which opened in 2017 in Williamsburg.

In 2021, the partners closed Cafe China to reopen a much larger restaurant in a more luxurious space two blocks away near Herald Square at 59 W. 37th Street. The new location is filled with tourists and store clerks as well as office workers.

Shortly after Cafe China closed, former employees Joe Tsou and Miki Niu and others reopened another restaurant in Cafe China’s former spot at 13 E. 37th Street, called Chili. The original owners immediately accused him of being a copycat in what appeared to be a playground fight.

I decided to visit both, firstly to do a review of the new Cafe China, which debuted in December, but also to compare the two and see how similar they really are.

Cafe China’s new premises are amazing – three stories in a building punctuated by a giant round window on the third floor, with public dining rooms and private enclaves, and a second-floor balcony that overlooks the ground floor. pavement. The restaurant seats more than 300 people, according to a manager who showed a friend and me around, fitted out in the style of the 1930s: tasselled lampshades hanging above the tables, black screens embroidered with swooping birds , airbrushed black and white portraits of identified grandparents, and an overall speakeasy vibe.

The menu has expanded to include other regional cuisines in addition to Sichuan and Cantonese, as well as the inevitable wines and cocktails. First to hit the table was the classic Shanghai-Wuxi-style eel ($15), a slippery julienne of fish thickly glazed in sugar and sprinkled with sesame seeds. For eel lovers, you rarely get so much in one place, but you might wish you had ordered it for dessert.

A bowl of dumplings on the left, noodles with meat sauce and greens on the top right.

Pork dumplings in chili oil and dan dan noodles at Cafe China.

The Chilli Oil Pork Meatballs ($9) were exactly as I fondly remembered them from the old place, thin-skinned with a deliciously lumpy filling, floating like jellyfish in soy porridge and chilli; while dan dan noodles thrown at the table were the usual item, spicy but not too spicy, thicker and firmer than usual. The mapo tofu ($16) was a hit of the meal, with firm tofu cubes dressed in its dark sauce and sprinkled with a fine sift of peppercorns dropped here and there. Gee, they were spicy! This recipe used fermented black beans to good effect.

Delivered cold, the sliced ​​tea-smoked duck ($19)—a dish the original Cafe China had helped popularize—was a little mediocre, I thought, although my dining companion raved about it, and I have to say the smooth texture was appealing. A Cantonese standard of loofah (yes, the vegetable of backwasher fame, but here delivered young and green) with dried scallops ($22) was done well if a bit dull, but turned out the contrast perfect with the spicier dishes of the evening.

Four Chinese dishes in a circle seen from above.

Clockwise from top left: Mapo tofu, braised beef in red soup, tea-smoked duck and loofah with dried scallops at Cafe China.

The spiciest dish, with mouth-watering heat, was the Braised Beef in Red Soup ($32). Thinly sliced, the meat pulled into large sheaves, dried red chili peppers lay around like empty cartridges, and a wreath of fresh cilantro perched on top. But the flavor also had a loamy subtlety that made it irresistible.

We left with the impression that Cafe China ranks among the best Sichuan restaurants in the city (in Manhattan, at least), and now, in its sprawling elegance, it’s an ideal destination for group meals and parties. special occasions. It might also be easier to get to than Flushing’s Sichuan restaurants.

Tables to the right, blue walls and hanging lamps.

With its Victrola, the interior of Chile reminded me of the valves.

The next day I visited Chili, still in Cafe China’s old location. The same yellow canopy remained, and the interior had a similar, but more kitsch, decor. Regardless, the food is distinguished, not as good in some ways but better in others.

Pork dumplings in chili oil ($9) were bombarded with their overly thick skin, while the dan dan noodles ($8) – again thrown at the table – suffered from being too thin and soft . Likewise, the mapo tofu was overly soft and creamy, although more subtly spiced and populated with lots of leeks, which added a nice flavor. But it was immediately apparent that this recipe was light years different from Cafe China, dispelling the rip-off feel of the menu.

Three courses, with the noodles on the left being served.

From left to right: dan dan noodles, pork dumpling in chili oil, and chili cucumber salad.

A dish of tofu on the left, pieces of dark meat on the right.

Mapo tofu and lamb with cumin in Chile.
Robert Sietsema / Eater NY

A pile of lightly charred duck, about half a bird.

The incredible Chili Tea Smoked Duck is brought to the table while smoking.

Two of the entrees we tried were excellent. The tea-smoked duck ($28) was delivered in a cloud of smoke inside a clear plastic dome, the bird charred here and there and revealed with panache. The lamb with cumin ($25) turned out to be one of the best versions in town, big, chewy chunks of meat heavily peppered and punctuated with thin stalks of Chinese celery.

I left with a burning mouth, but thinking I’d like to fit both restaurants into my regular rotation when I’m craving Sichuan food and not near Flushing, Sunset Park, or the East Village .

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