Chinatown is dying. Well, not really, but in our primary Chinatowns of the Lower East Side, Sunset Park, and Flushing, the restaurant population has remained relatively static and even dwindled over the last few years, as the most interesting new Chinese restaurants have sprung up in non-traditional settings. The reason? Regional Chinese has gone mainstream — as Chinese-American did a century ago — and developed a real fandom among the general population. Thus we find, for example, food from Shaanxi Province easily accessible at the multiple locations of Xi’an Famous Foods, while Hunan cuisine has gained traction in the East Village at Hunan Bistro. Meanwhile, Sichuan like you once had to travel to Flushing to get is now readily available all over Midtown. Everywhere, Chinese fare seems to be flourishing at the fast casual, bistro, and fine dining levels.
As a corollary, well-capitalized Chinese restaurant chains are seeking to establish a foothold here. The latest is Hao Noodle and Tea, a first American branch of Madam Zhu’s Kitchen, founded in 2008, with six locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and other Chinese cities. The owner, Sichuan native Zhu Rong, must have trained her binoculars on Brooklyn from across the globe, because this newcomer — in high-rent digs on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village — looks more like a Bushwick bistro than a traditional Chinese restaurant. No dragons, crawling babies, or big round tables. Rather, Edison bulbs shoot from chandeliers, crumbling bricks and scratchy blue treatments line the walls, a flea-shop chintz lamp stands forlornly in the corner, while art photos and a profusion of potted plants freshen the loft-like interior.
There’s a bar up front and a larger dining room in back. Both are startlingly spacious, though seating at individual small tables is tight, and — surrounded by backless and unpadded torture stools — the long communal table in the middle is as cramped as cramped can be. Madam Zhu, please make your dining room comfy! While the liquor license is still pending, the signal beverage is a choice of premium teas, at $6 to $8 per pot. In fact, the restaurant offers a separate tea service in the afternoon, and the entire place seems more inspired by Chinese tea houses than full-blown restaurants. A large proportion of the dishes are small — so maybe Hao Noodle is also channeling American tapas bars. Luckily, the deliciousness level is often very high.
Recipes are drawn from many parts of China, and the menu is to be commended for not pulling its flavor punches, especially where Sichuan food is concerned. One of the best short plates is Le Shan chicken ($10) — tidbits of poultry in a gingery swamp of chile paste and Sichuan peppercorns heaped with finely diced celery, named after a small riverside city in southern Sichuan. In fact, the best deal on the menu is in a similar vein: milky mung bean jelly stacked like railroad ties, enhanced by crunchy peanuts ($6). It may be the spiciest vegan bowl in town. Other Sichuan standards include a version of dan dan mian ($8) with the softest noodles imaginable. (This isn’t Italian food, and the glove-soft texture is a revelation). But the best dish on the menu, with a breathtakingly green broth, is Madam Zhu’s spicy fish stew ($25). Watch out, tongue!
Never fear, there’s plenty of not-hot stuff, too. Shredded wild mushrooms that make you think of Yunnan — which is the Chinese capital of mushrooms — rest in what amounts to a crunchy puzzle box ($12), while fritters of fish flecked with seaweed seem like Japanese fast food. Chinese-American standards are represented, too, proving that Madam Zhu has been studying the history of Chinese food in America. Thus, scallion pancakes have been enlivened with shreds of seafood to good effect; on the negative side is a sweet-and-sour pork with chunks of pineapple that made me almost gag. (Yes, the precursor comes from Dongbei, but this take is clearly inspired by the gloppy American version.)
The restaurant provides startling selections in every corner of the long and diverse menu. As the waiter doffs the handsome lid of clay pot dumplings ($12), the steam rushes forth to reveal flattened purses made of egg omelet rather than the usual noodle material. "What a deal," you sigh as you tease the pork-filled packages out of the broth. Other dishes are not such a bargain, including Shanghai ribs that came plated like an abstract painting, but with so little meat on the tiny bones that my party burst out laughing.
The place seems intent on belatedly mounting a new seasonal menu every quarter, with little poetic snippets here and there — and thus it was that summer appeared in August this year at the restaurant. A few old favorites I’d been enjoying over the last couple of months disappeared, including braised celtuce, a chewy vegetable sometimes called Chinese lettuce. And in their place were some new things, including a few off-the-wall recipes that made Hao Noodle seem like one of the hipster restaurants flourishing on the edge of Chinatown. There was a perfectly executed fruit salad sprinkled with black pepper; but even stranger was something called multi-grain rainbow salad ($12).
There before me as I peered mournfully into the bowl was a collection of faddish grains, including buckwheat, millet, and quinoa, tossed with roasted root vegetables, yellow raisins, and pine nuts like a bad day at Dimes. Compared to the really stunning stuff on the menu, it was awful. Madam Zhu, you can’t beat us at our own game, but you can beguile us by delicately rendering Chinese dishes the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Cost: Dinner for two, including two or three small dishes, two larger dishes, and a shared dessert, washed down with free ice water, with tax but not tip, $90.
Sample dishes: Le shan chicken, sweetly smoked sole, Madam Zhu’s spicy fish stew, mixed mushrooms, seafood fried rice, rosewater jelly.
What to drink: Ice water or premium teas.
Bonus tip: It’s impossible to tell how big dishes really are, based on either the price or the color pictures. Accordingly, order a few dishes at a time, and stop when you’re full. This will also avoid the problem of dish bunch-up on the small tables.