You might not have heard of Jue Lan Club, which opened in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood at the end of last year, but you probably know the famous rectory that houses it. In the 1980s, the deconsecrated Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue was converted into a nightclub that later became Limelight, “one of the wildest clubs in history” according to journalist Michael Musto, “a den of hedonism for a generation of heat-seeking Club Kids.”
Grace Jones partied there. So did Madonna and Debbie Harry. But to entrepreneurs, the star was owner Peter Gatien, known then as the king of the New York club scene. After Gatien was deported to Canada following a tax fraud conviction, the church became a rehab center and later, a mall-slash-gym. Reviving its '90s-era glory (already fading by 1998, when it was featured in Sex and the City) would be impossible, but Jue Lan Club has made a winking effort by naming one of its private dining rooms in Gatien’s honor. There is work by Keith Haring on show, along with new ceramic sculptures by artist Yeats Gruin.
Maybe it’s the insistent nods to a lost past, or the servers in flight attendant-red belted dresses handing out endless hot, perfumed towelettes, but dinner at Jue Lan Club can feel more like taking a turbulent ride at a garish theme park than like eating dinner. The main bar and dining room are all dimly lit bare brick, a kind of Disney Gothic, and they are outfitted with baroque green velvet banquettes. Those are often packed with middle-aged white men in shiny suits and women clinking glasses of Champagne over plates of hastily sliced raw fish in various gaudy shades of pink and orange. One man kept it brief when introducing another to his girlfriend: “We used to party together, babe, back in the day.”
The restaurateur behind Jue Lan Club is Stratis Morfogen, better known as the founder and former CEO of Phillipe Chow Restaurants (which is, for the record, not connected in any way to the Mr. Chow restaurants; see court case here). Morfogen, along with partners Robert Collins and Richie Romero, named their new place after a Chinese art society of the 1930s, but the food is more in the tradition of clubby Chinese-American restaurants such as Buddakan, where the chef cooked previously. The scene comes first, and the scene is fueled by the saccharine, persistently easygoing flavors of pan-Asian fare. Pass the FettiChino!
One evening, my table of three women ordered exactly four small appetizers and a round of cocktails and were firmly warned by our waitress to take it easy. “I just want you to know, that’s a lot of food,” she told us. Twice. At the time, I thought she was joking. It now occurs to me that she might have been trying to tell us something: This ride is more fun if you keep it short.
You can draw it out with fried noodles and choose-your-own-meat skewers, which are crispy-edged and wrecked with butter, as well as oxtail bao—lonely, unseasoned heaps of braised meat. Hot and Numbing Beef is a Sichuan dish, the meat usually stained with a deep red oil that gives you a killer two-for-one: the blasting heat of chili pepper and the buzzing, electric numbness of Sichuan peppercorns. At Jue Lan Club, the meat is in skinny, frizzled pieces, thick with a gummy batter and doused in a sticky sweet syrup that looks like something you’d force down to help you sleep. A lot of the savory entrees are not unlike the takeout versions you’d turn to during a night in—at twice the price, and without the comforts of slippers and your favorite giant, unbreakable wine glass.
On a recent weeknight, I met friends at the bar after work, then stayed for dinner. “We’re trying to fill these tables over here,” the host explained as she seated us in a perfectly nice corner booth, making it sound like a punishment for being underdressed. “Oh god,” my friend said a little later, and for a second I thought she'd spotted a celebrity among the nearby women in cream-colored bandage dresses who were sipping blue cocktails. No, it was just the soup dumplings. These were served without spoons, on slatted steamers with no base underneath; as two of them deflated, the tepid, sticky juice inside ran down the sloped table directly onto my friend's lap. This would have been the ideal moment to bring out some of those hot towelettes that were so ubiquitous earlier. None arrived.
The bar can get busy, but the dining room behind the bar is often quiet and sparsely populated. Although the staff is warm and friendly, the service they deliver is erratic and uneven. The wrong dishes come out; the right silverware doesn’t. A drink left half-finished might prompt a server to say, “What, you didn’t like it?!”
At least once, not getting what I asked for turned out to be a blessing: Though my table ordered the chocolate tart, we got the chocolate mousse cake instead. This was inexplicably great—a weightless, intensely flavored cloud that melted away effortlessly—one of the most put-together things on the menu. It was the type of chaotic inversion that the devilish club owners who used to run this place would have appreciated.
Fortune cookies closed the meal. “A good woman will do 70 chores around the house,” mine read, “Cooking and 69.” I laughed, not at the joke, but at the absurdity of receiving it like a cheery prize. Then I flipped the sad punchline over: In some kind of bonkers branding move, Jue Lan Club had printed its own name and logo on the back. No really, it seemed to say, this is all on purpose.
Jue Lan Club is at 49 West 20th Street (Chelsea): +1 (646) 524-7409 or juelanclub.com
Rating: Zero Stars (Poor)
What to Order: A couple of rounds of dumplings and drinks are a safe bet—and may be the best way to enjoy the space. If you’re there for dessert, get the chocolate mousse cake ($10).
Soundtrack: No Limelight nostalgia here, just James Taylor, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, The Band.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-stated Stratis Morfogen's relationship to Phillipe Chow Restaurants—he is no longer CEO.