Two years ago, when Hao Noodle and Tea opened on Sixth Avenue, it came as a revelation. Here was a nuanced take on several Chinese regional cuisines appearing incongruously in the heart of Greenwich Village. It turns out the chain originated in China, as an offshoot of a restaurant group called Madame Zhu’s Kitchen, with eight restaurants in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. The eponymous head of the chain was veteran restaurateur Zhu Rong, a native of Sichuan, hence the menu’s particular Sichuan emphasis.
NYC’s original Hao Noodle and Tea was elegant but cramped, and the place seemed partly intended as a tea house — a harbinger of the tea culture that would soon sweep the city. Now a new, slightly less expensive branch called simply Hao Noodle (“hao” means great) has hit town, on 14th Street just east of MePa. It has outdone its predecessor in handsomeness, especially in a large dining room that boasts well-spaced tables, sprays of colorful flowers, and a skylight streaming down soft light all day and into the summer evenings.
As you approach the dining room through random scattered seating, a glassed-in kitchen shows line cooks in a row at their stations, grilling, steaming, and frying. Though the menus of our two Hao Noodle branches overlap, and both change seasonally, the new one emphasizes the cuisine of Shanghai, where Madame Zhu’s Kitchen is based and where chef Jun Chen hails from.
There are Shanghai soup dumplings (three for $6) that bulge with a gravy more delicate and less greasy than usual — though the morsels of crab one sometimes finds mixed with the ground pork and wadded on top are missing. The regular pork dumplings are also worth trying, much bigger than the usual pot stickers. These arrive festively sprinkled with black sesame seeds and mounted on an edible fried lattice in a style that was popular among Chinese restaurants here a couple of years back.
Another Shanghai specialty is also spectacularly rendered. The usual rubbery lion’s head meatballs found in most dim sum services have been replaced by softer and more subtly flavored examples. These arrive bobbing in a silky, chestnut-hued broth with a runny poached egg, which enriches the soup once the yolk breaks. Though the price for the soup seems substantial ($20), the quantity proves enough for two or three to share, and the gracious staff provides small bowls without being asked.
Anything with noodles is worth getting. Dried shrimp scallion noodles ($12) might be a gussied up version of street food, a bowl of wheat noodles slicked with thick soy sauce, dotted with dried shrimp, and stacked with charred chives that add a dark note to the flavor. Dan dan mian are the flagship of the restaurant’s noodle armada. These are spicier than usual, and heaped with crushed peanuts and scallions, with a meat sauce on the liquid side, making mixing the noodles and sauce less frustrating than usual.
NYC’s new branch lacks the pricey entrees and complex tea menu of the first local Hao Noodle, plus offers several special sections lacking at the first branch, including flame grilled skewers and soy braised meats. Though there’s no liquor license yet, you can bring your own beer or wine. As at a tapas bar or other stylish small plates restaurants, many dishes at the new location tend to be petite and beautiful, with elegant platings that equal those of far more expensive restaurants.
There are also some Western twists to a menu that emphasizes snacks, noodles, and meal-sized soups. One such dish features swatches of sweet hawthorn jelly interleaved with creamy avocado. What’s that greenish stuff drizzled on top? Olive oil, of course, making the dish seem Californian and Chinese simultaneously.
Lunch and dinner menus differ. At dinner, there are skewers cooked over flame, but not at lunch. These run from $2.50 to $4.50 and include mushrooms, vegetables, seafood, and meats. The only one my group and I didn’t relish was lamb, which was spongy in an odd sort of way. The mushrooms with garlic butter and black pepper were fantastic, really benefiting from the flame.
Another highlight, from the menu of soy-braised meats (dinner only), included a bowl of pork trotter ($12), in which the foot was by turns rubbery, chewy, and meaty. In the bargain department, a haystack of shredded bean curd skin in a peppery sauce ($8) was delectably spicy. I’d have to say one of the best dishes was one called “sweetly smoked sole” ($15), which featured boneless filet that had been smoked and then fried. The southern Chinese dish of beef rib in black pepper was another delight, steamed with slices of pineapple.
The menu is huge, with lots to explore. Already, Hao Noodle Chelsea ranks among Manhattan’s best Chinese restaurants, and certainly one of the most unusual in the scope of its offerings.