In the closing decades of the last century, Cantonese fare was considered a very big deal in the city, and not just for dim sum. Huge palaces serving the cuisine arose, in Chinatown but also in Midtown and other parts of the city. Many specialized in big ticket seafood, rendered simply and with scintillating freshness. Indeed, at a time when even Italian cuisine hadn’t quite come into its own in New York’s finer dining scene, I recall the food world debating which cuisine was superior in its attention to detail and concern with the perfection of the finished product, French or Cantonese?
In Chinatown, places like Triple Eight Palace, Silver Palace, and Golden Unicorn led the way, while many of Midtown’s finest Chinese restaurants included Cantonese fare on their menus, such as Mr. Chow, David K’s, and the Shun Lee empire, which once had four upscale Chinese restaurants. During this era, the changing status of Hong Kong led many celebrated chefs to come here in search of new opportunities, which bolstered the quality of the cuisine immeasurably.
But gradually, as the new century dawned, and immigrants were more likely to have come from places like Fujian and northern and western China, the city’s preoccupation with Cantonese food waned. While the cooking of Guangdong, where Cantonese fare comes from, is generally mild and of infinite subtlety, the food that arrived from the newly represented provinces tended to be highly spiced. Almost overnight, we were downing dishes heavy with chiles, ginger, and garlic, and ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns, lamb, and rice noodles came to dominate the menus.
Cantonese with its milder flavors got lost in the shuffle, and many upscale restaurants simply disappeared. But one that has persisted is Ping Seafood Restaurant. Its chef, Chuen Ping Hui, began his career here, after emigrating from Hong Kong, at Triple Eight Palace, a massive restaurant and shopping complex under the Manhattan Bridge. After eight years there, he founded his own restaurant in the mid-’90s, eventually moving to the current location at 22 Mott, just south of Pell, in 2000.
Ping’s was in the vanguard of a movement that saw chefs owning their own restaurants; in fact, it might be argued Ping Hui was one of the first Chinese celebrity chefs in the United States. He previously also owned two other self-named restaurants, both now closed.
At the time, the menu represented some of the most accomplished Cantonese food in town, and it attracted hordes of critics and other food professionals. I remember looking across the upstairs dining room one evening and spotting Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters at one table and Jonathan Gold and his family at another.
Well, the restaurant is still there, even though the patrons are mainly European tourists who find the prices modest, and Chinese-Americans who moved to the suburbs and see the restaurant as a chance to show their children what Chinese food was like when they grew up. I recently paid a couple of visits to see if the food was still as great as I remembered it.
It was. The highlight of two visits was a whole fish that the waiter identified as “Thai bass.” A friend and I were given the choice of fried or steamed, and we naturally picked steamed, the preferred Cantonese method of cooking seafood to preserve its delicacy. The waiter pulled a fish from a tank near the door, bounded up a few steps, and stood beside our table as the specimen wriggled in a plastic tub.
Not long afterward, it arrived on an oblong plate swimming in light soy sauce, thatched overhead with shredded scallions, garlic chives, and frizzled shallots, which imparted the subtlest of flavorings. The fish flesh was soft and pulled away easily from the bones, tasting like you’d just taken a plunge in the ocean. You’ve probably never had seafood quite this fresh or perfectly prepared. The fish weighed 1.55 pounds, and at $38 per pound rung in at $58.90. I contend you couldn’t get a better fish at Le Bernardin.
The old Hong Kong-leaning menu is still in place, even though many of the classic dishes have been supplemented by modern Sichuan and northern Chinese flourishes. We also enjoyed a pair of stuffed and baked conch ($7.50 each) in the Portuguese style, showing the influence of adjacent Macao on Hong Kong cooking, and a giant plate of the largest duck tongues we’d ever tried.
One of the evening’s highlights was bamboo pith and mushrooms served in a wok, with a flame underneath to keep the mixture bubbling. On a previous occasion, we enjoyed what in the late ’90s was considered the restaurant’s signature: a nest of e-fu noodles (symbolizing long life) with an entire fresh lobster that had been hacked and sauced. The waiter showed the lobster to us before it was whisked away to the kitchen for cooking.
In its day, the restaurant was responsible for other firsts, too. It presented itself as a place to enjoy vintage European wines, and for that purpose, glass cases by the banquet rooms downstairs were filled with patrons’ bottles, marked up to show ownership. Many are still there. Ping’s was also one of the first places to serve dim sum in the afternoon and on into the evening, a style that’s now contemporary.
Ping himself is still hard at work in the kitchen, the waiter assured me, and there’s no better dinner in town than a plate of freshly prepared seafood in the Cantonese style taken with a glass of French or California wine.