At La Chine, a Chinese Real Estate Investment Pays Delicious Dividends
A waiter appears at the table with a saucepan of hot oil that's made from the crushed seeds of peony blossoms. Once he has your full attention, he pours it over raw fluke, and you're hit with a scent that’s more frankincense than flowers. The fish hisses and smokes, and though it doesn’t cook through, it submits to this aromatic oil therapy, warming up and relaxing.
It’s no coincidence that the Waldorf Astoria's newest restaurant, which opened in early November, is flexing Chinese haute cuisine. Though Hilton continues to manage the property in Midtown Manhattan, last year it sold the Art Deco landmark for $1.95 billion to Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese firm.
La Chine may be new, but it’s part of a tradition of exoticization within the hotel. In the 19th century, at the original Waldorf location where the Empire State Building now stands, the hotel boasted a Turkish-themed smoking room with quotations from the Koran on the walls. In the 1960s, at the current site on Park Avenue, you could listen to live German music at the baroque Waldorfkeller, which paired suckling pig with sauerkraut. In 1978, the short-lived Shah Abbas began specializing in Persian food in a trippy, mirrored dining room—until the Iran hostage crisis shrank its customer base.
You find La Chine downstairs, through the hotel’s less glamorous entrance on Lexington Avenue. Here, at the bottom of the escalators, a private party from one of the ballrooms upstairs has often unloaded some garbage on their way out—half-empty bottles of Bud Light, lipstick-stained cocktail napkins, a wilting corsage. But once you get inside the restaurant, it's plush and good-looking, renovated in shades of black and gold, with fuzzy banquettes and a black marble bar, set up like an old-school power room around a wealth of orchids. Although the lighting is grim, and many spots in the circular arrangement cast dark shadows over the tables, you can get pretty comfortable.
The chef is Kong Khai Meng, who comes from Singapore and who worked for many years in Chinese kitchens across Asia, including at high-end hotel chains such as the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental. Here, he’s gone through great effort to showcase Chinese cooking from many different regions and to experiment. There are simple dishes like the Yunnan-style beef tongue, cooked so the meat is very tender and infused all the way through with lemongrass. But plenty of modern eccentricities are unattached to any particular place, such as the bites of soy-salted foie gras.
In the raw bar category, deep-cupped oysters are heaped with frozen crystals of black vinegar. To configure this section (rarely seen on Chinese menus), Meng looked to old traditions of raw seafood from the Zhejiang province along China’s east coast, then took some liberties. The results, as with that fluke, can be excellent, as well as a little clumsy: The kitchen employs tapioca maltodextrin to make a creamy, olive-flavored powder that garnishes raw tuna; like the flutter of gold leaf in the delicious oysters, it can seem superfluous.
The menu is divided into a few additional categories (seafood, noodles, barbecue) that are annotated by region. Many are easy to share family-style, like the smoky, grease-slicked buckwheat noodles hiding threads of barbecue pork and the poached sea snails cut beautifully to resemble flower petals, tingling and sweet with fermented soy. The exception is the soup section, where each dish is apportioned to serve just one person. You’ll be glad to have your own rich, creamy "Golden Broth" over lobster meat, at least until its loveliness is undercut by a gritty scallop.
Though the Peking duck isn’t carved dramatically at the table, as it is at less expensive restaurants in New York, it’s excellent at La Chine. The meat is dark and sweet and very tender, served under a pile of perfect, crackling brown skin in shining, paper-thin pieces. On any given night, there is a bird on every table, with sheer pancakes kept supple in a steam basket, and wands of spring onion, cucumber, and cantaloupe. If you go for the whole bird instead of just half, it also comes with some lettuce leaves piled with little pieces of fatty leg meat tossed around with pine nuts. (This might make La Chine's $70 whole duck seem quite reasonable, if you compare it to the $78 duck served at Decoy. Then again, maybe not, if you compare it to the $52 duck at Peking Duck House.)
Desserts such as the chocolate cake and the tapioca soup can be disappointing, built with too many competing elements and fiddly bits and pieces that don’t add up to anything. But the bowl of floral, fruity granita with a fluff of fromage blanc is a winner, delicately textured and flavored. Service is smooth and often unexpectedly cheerful, though it can sometimes drag between courses. Although the dining room seems quiet early in the evening, it consistently fills up for business dinners, rich-teen birthday parties, and hotel guests who don't want to leave the place for a night out. The whole vibe changes.
La Chine replaced Oscar’s Brasserie, which was named after the hotel’s one-time superstar maitre d’ Oscar Tschirky. It might be a convenient symbol for how foreign investment can shape a city, but it's also a nice place to go for dinner. And as you leave, you’ll notice that the hostess didn’t give you a tag for your coat; she just remembers which was yours and helps you put it on. Tschirky would surely approve.
La Chine is at 540 Lexington Avenue (midtown); +1 (212) 872-4913 or lachinenyc.com
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Half dozen oysters ($18); Long Island fluke with peony oil ($20); Beef tongue ($15); Peking duck ($45 for half; $70 for whole plus duck lettuce cups); House-made tofu ($18); Buckwheat noodles with barbecue pork ($18); Fromage blanc with granita ($15)
Soundtrack: Contemporary pop playing low in the background, murmurs and laughter from other tables, ice bouncing around in cocktail shakers, teens singing Happy Birthday.
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