Anyone who’s ever been conned into dropping $100 a person at one of New York’s Asian theme-park restaurants would be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at Chinese Tuxedo. Set in an old community opera house on Doyers Street in Chinatown, the bi-level spot pipes The Roots through the sound system, charges steep sums for hifalutin beef with broccoli and modernist eggplant fries, and occupies sufficient square footage to evoke a proper clubstaurant. It’s enough to make you wonder if you shouldn’t eat here.
As it turns out, you should.
Tuxedo appears to have cost millions. Sleek wood chairs look as if they’re fetched from the nearest Danish design store. Circular leather booths would fit in any Midtown steakhouse. And lighting might be set at that magic level that beautifies fellow diners in one spot while obscuring the oyster-sauce soaked yuba on your plate. The most dramatic feature is a stadium-style bar terrace, where, from my upper-level perch one night, I almost dropped a chopstick on a waiter ten feet below.
During a recent visit, a waiter asks how many orders of beef tartare I’d like, a curious question for a solo diner. "It’s pretty small," he said.
When my lone tartare arrives, two things become clear: the kitchen is in excellent hands and the waiter was right. An ounce on a single rice cracker, each morsel of rough-cut sirloin zings with a jolt of fish sauce and kaffir lime, while Sichuan peppercorns lend a touch of bitterness. At a fancier venue this would be an amuse bouche. Here you pay $6 for about six tiny bites, which feels about right.
While clubby, Chinese Tuxedo is not quite a clubstaurant. There’s no vodka Red Bull; the owners are still waiting on a full liquor license. The music is a bit louder than at a hip Soho spot, but the volume never seems to interrupt. The tables are separated by a few more inches than one might expect. And instead of a traditional amuse, a waiter drops by with a cup of black tea at the beginning of the meal. The restaurant from Australian Eddy Buckingham and Fuzhou-born general contractor Jeff Lam has created a blend of coolness and comfort that’s less Tao, more Nobu. I’ll take it.
Refined riffs on classic hawker fare and eclectic fusion dishes come courtesy of Paul Donnelly, a native Scotsman who cooked for years in Sydney. His spicy pork dumplings, XO noodles, and chicken stir fries command markups like bottle service — three to four times the going rate at a reputable takeout spot.
In a compelling Franco-Sino starter, the kitchen tames the bilious bite of chicken liver mousse with the warmth of five spice and fragrant maple syrup. I slather the offal over yeasty batons of youtiao crullers and I wonder, for a minute, whether my life would be better if I could order this gem with coffee, every morning, from a street side vendor — even at $15, which is what it costs at Tuxedo. (And let’s be honest, that’s about what you’d drop, without a moment of hesitation, on a grain bowl delivery from Maple.)
"We eat in Chinatown restaurants because no part of Manhattan so readily offers better food for less money," Pete Wells wrote in 2012. He’s right, but the relatively high cost of dinner at Tuxedo shouldn’t distract from a larger truth: Diners have been willing to spend more at good Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and greater Manhattan for a long time.
I'm talking about old-guard hangouts like Shun Lee Palace, Peking Duck House, and the live seafood temple that is Oriental Garden, as well as at more more modern restaurants like Fung Tu, Decoy, Hakkasan (yes, it’s still open), and the Asian-American stoner’s banquet hall that is Mission Chinese. That stadium-sized Buddakan and Tao are among the country’s most trafficked restaurants highlights how expansive a notion New Yorkers have of what constitutes Chinese fare, how much they’ll pay for it, and whether such venues are cool enough for a few hits of BYO birthday cocaine (why not?).
It’s this love of high-end Chinese food in all its awesomely evolving forms that lets a venue like Tuxedo thrive. And in case there’s any worry about an Australian owner and a Scottish chef swooping down onto historic Doyers Street with a restaurant that looks straight out of Sex and the City, let the record state that on a recent Saturday patrons were spilling out of neighboring Nom Wah Tea Parlor (the famed dim sum house) and Joe’s Shanghai (a historic spot for xiao long bao).
It’s this love of high-end Chinese food in all its awesomely evolving forms that lets a venue like Tuxedo thrive.
None of this makes it any easier to pay a little bit extra for a dish. XO noodles, typically a $5 street snack, run $25 at Tuxedo. Here’s why: Homemade egg fettuccine, which replace the traditional rice noodles, get waxed in nothing more than savory seaweed butter. It’s as if Donnelly is preparing them for a shaving of truffles. And he more or less is, except in this case the aromatic addition is a regal XO sauce: A funky, almost furry chutney of shrimp and (very non-traditional) speck with an evanescent complexity that could rival tartufi bianco.
Sichuan eggplant is an easy candidate for dish of the year. The aubergine doesn’t really provide any mala tingle — nothing really does at Tuxedo — but the dish still delivers, thanks to a clever trick: Donnelly laces his batter with xantham gum and pipes it out of a whipped cream canister. The wizardry transforms the vegetable into the nightshade equivalent of a pommes souffle, except these ethereal batons pack the sugars of a sweet plantain. Donnelly employs the same aeration technique for sweet and sour pork, chewy little knobs of swine fried in a wafer-like crust — a neutral conduit for the sauce’s agrodolce tang.
Donnelly is quick to admit that some of these touches – like adding fish sauce and kaffir to beef tartare – aren’t precisely Chinese, though any particular dish never feels any less Chinese than say, the Sichuan spaetzle at Fung Tu or the Kung Pao pastrami at Mission Chinese. Such gyrations are precisely what one might expect from the longtime chef at Ms. G’s, a heralded pan-Asian fusion spot in Sydney, and from a man who once said in an interview that he wants his legacy to be "known as an Asian White Boy."
Does Donnelly riff too hard on the classics? Sometimes. The Hong Kong-New York staple, beef and broccoli is reimagined as pastrami-cured tongue with broccoli relish; the sweet, vegetal tones of the latter ingredient are invisible. The good news? It’s still wicked good, with green tomato that cuts through the funk of ox tongue. Mapo tofu is less of a success. Reinterpreted as a porky bolognese, an aggressively salty ragu that reeks of a Sichuan peppercorn is heaped over thin noodles, yet again, it lacks mala.
Tuxedo gives other standards proper due. Stir-fry chicken ($25) is a fine study in the sugars of oyster sauce, the gentle absorptive capacity of yuba, the toothsome Maillard of well-cooked fowl and the warming heat of black pepper. It’s nothing revelatory, yet it’s well-executed fare that tastes great over rice (an extra $5, so that’s $30) and washed down with a beer. Steamed sea bass with ginger and soy, a life-changing treat at Oriental Garden, is less enthralling for a minuscule portion that’s $38 dollars — even if it is expertly cooked.
More good news: Tuxedo’s red meats wouldn’t be out of place at a Michelin-starred house of game. Sliced duck, incorrectly listed under the salad section, exhibits a tenderness and level of rendered fat that’s straight up Daniel, while fresh lychees mimic the delicate softness of the animal flesh. And then there’s the squab – not since Babbo has New York encountered a pigeon preparation this exciting! Handsomely bronzed, the quartered pigeon balances notes of sweetness and musk as adroitly as lamb, with a texture so delicate that filet mignon would be tough by comparison. You dip in it a sugar-laced salt and you eat it with your hands like a barbecue-sauce slathered chicken wing at a summer picnic. Pick up the head and, with as much confidence as you would with a shrimp, suck out the soft, earthy brains.
Desserts are worth the visit alone. Steamed tofu topped with granola, a cloud of soft soy hidden underneath a layer of crunch, is the type of dish I wish the owners served in their vegan coffee shop next door. And whipped cream with strawberries and yogurt is aromatic bliss, a freeform ode to shades of red and pink in varying degrees of ice, fluff, and fruit.
Then you look at the check. And you conclude that beef tartare really should come as a free amuse bouche. But you show up a week later and you order it again. I suppose these boys are onto something!
Cost: Expect to spend about $100 or more per person. Snacks at $3.50 (single oysters) to $15 (chicken liver). Small plates at $11 (spicy cucumbers) to $24 (bigeye tuna). Meats, seafood and noodles at $19 (liang mian chilled noodles) to $58 (sirloin steak).
Sample dishes: Chicken liver, curried egg roll, steak tartare, Sichuan eggplant, XO noodles, pork dumplings, duck salad (not a salad), squab with sweet salt, sweet and sour pork, chicken stir-fry, steamed tofu dessert, berries with cream.
Bonus tip: No reservations for parties of 3 or less, though bar seats usually open up within minutes.