Eleven years ago when Cafe China opened on the edge of Murray Hill steps from the Morgan Library, it caused an uproar. While Chinese food had always been a common lunch option among office workers in this commercial neighborhood, this place added Sichuan specialties to its mainly Cantonese menu, and the dishes were a giant hit. Soon, the neighborhood was a nest of Chinese restaurants flaunting Sichuan options, and this was one of the early factors that helped Sichuan evolve into New York City’s favorite Chinese cuisine.
A couple of years later, the same team of Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang opened first China Blue in 2014 in Tribeca, which pursued a Shanghainese agenda (and closed in 2020), as well as Sichuan restaurant Birds of a Feather which opened in 2017 in Williamsburg.
In 2021, the partners shuttered Cafe China to reopen a much larger restaurant in a more luxurious space two blocks over near Herald Square at 59 W. 37th Street. The new location is thronged with tourists and store clerks as well as office workers.
Soon after Cafe China’s closure, former employees Joe Tsou and Miki Niu along with others reopened another restaurant in the former Cafe China spot at 13 E. 37th Street, called Chili. The original owners immediately accused it of being a copycat in what seemed like a playground tussle.
I decided to visit both, first to do an appraisal of the new Cafe China, which debuted in December, but also to compare the two and see how similar they really are.
The new premises of Cafe China is amazing – three stories in a building punctuated by a giant round window on the third floor, with public dining rooms and private enclaves, and a second-floor balcony that looks out over the main floor. The restaurant seats over 300, according to a manager who gave a friend and me a tour, done up in a 1930s-style: tasseled lampshades hanging over tables, black embroidered screens showing swooping birds, airbrushed black-and-white portraits of identified grandparents, and a general speakeasy atmosphere.
The menu has expanded to include other regional cuisines besides Sichuan and Cantonese, along with the inevitable wines and cocktails. First to hit the table was classic Shanghai – eel Wuxi style ($15), a julienne of the slippery fish thickly sugar-glazed and sprinkled with sesame seeds. For eel enthusiasts, you rarely get this much in one place, but you may wish you’d ordered it for dessert.
The pork dumplings in chile oil ($9) were just as I fondly remembered them from the old place, thin-skinned with a delightfully lumpy filling, floating like jellyfish in a soy-and-chile slurry; while the dan dan noodles tossed tableside were the usual article, spicy but not too spicy, thicker and more firm than usual. The mapo tofu ($16) was one of the hits of the meal, with firm tofu cubes dressed in its dark sauce and dusted with a fine sifting of peppercorns deposited here and there. Gee, they were spicy! This recipe used fermented black beans to good effect.
Delivered cold, the sliced tea-smoked duck ($19) – a dish the original Cafe China had helped popularize – was a little unimpressive I thought, though my dining companion was fond of it, and I’ll have to say the smooth texture was appealing. A Cantonese standard of loofah (yes, the vegetable of back-scrubber fame, but here delivered young and green) with dried scallop ($22) was well-rendered if a bit dull, but proved the perfect contrast to the spicier dishes of the evening.
The spiciest dish, with mouth-searing hotness – was braised beef in red soup ($32). Sliced thin, the meat pulled up in great wads, dried red chiles lay about like spent cartridges, and a crown of fresh cilantro perched on top. But the flavor also had a loamy subtlety that made it irresistible.
We went away feeling like Cafe China ranks among the city’s best Sichuan restaurants (in Manhattan, at least), and now in its sprawling elegance makes a great destination for group meals and special occasions. It also might be easier to get to than the Sichuan restaurants of Flushing.
The next day I visited Chili, still in Cafe China’s old location. The same yellow awning remained, and the interior had some similar décor, only kitschier. No matter, the food is distinguished, not as good in some respects but better in others.
The pork dumplings in chili oil ($9) bombed by being too thick-skinned, while the dan dan noodles ($8) – once again tossed tableside – suffered from being too thin and soft. Similarly, the mapo tofu was too soft and creamy, though more subtly spiced and populated with lots of leeks, which added some nice flavor. But it was immediately apparent that this recipe was light years different than the one at Cafe China, dispelling the impression of menu rip-off.
Two of the entrees we tried were brilliant. The tea-smoked duck ($28) was delivered in a cloud of smoke inside a clear plastic dome, the bird charred here and there and revealed with a flourish. The cumin lamb ($25) proved to be one of the city’s best versions, big soft swatches of meat heavily peppercorned and punctuated with thin stalks of Chinese celery.
I left with my mouth burning, but thinking I’d like to make both restaurants a part of my regular rotation when I’m craving Sichuan food and I don’t happen to be near Flushing, Sunset Park, or the East Village.