Out in Forest Hills, Spy-C, Sichuan and Hunan cuisine from chef Tom Lei, which opened in 2018, has gained a legion of fans beyond the neighborhood. They’re ordering the cucumbers, for starters: the dish seduced Thomas Lo — an anesthesiologist who went to culinary school and cooked in restaurants — who apparently fell in love with Spy C’s food. Fast-forward to late 2022, the two Toms joined forces as business partners, opening Chi Restaurant and Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s one of many new restaurants shaping a Chinatown corridor in Midtown Manhattan, with regional Chinese restaurants serving Taiwanese soup dumplings, Sichuan noodles, dim sum, and crawfish.
On my four or five visits to Chi, the flavors are occasionally less lusty and more restrained than I’d prefer, yet I’m reminded of what it’s like when you get a glimpse of professional athletes or dancers: You know the chef is well trained and super fluid in the kitchen, and it shows in the food. (Lei, as Max Falkowitz reported when Spy-C opened, apparently studied regional Chinese cooking at a Beijing culinary school before coming to New York to consult on fancy Chinese restaurant openings.)
The vibe: While Lei might have come to New York to consult in the opening of high-end restaurants, this is definitely not fancy. It is a clean, well-lighted place that feels modern enough, with its hexagon tile floors and glass sculpture of a dragon hanging in the back room. I wish there were a votive fairy who’d drop one on every table, and that the house would dim the lights (and consider a playlist that’s less doctors’ office). As far as the crowd, there are a lot of big groups of Chinese students here, as well as couples sharing dishes. I always want to sit at the bar but somehow end up in the giant, cushy booths in the back. If you’re looking to have a private conversation, this is where you should sit.
What to drink: Chinese gong fu-style teas are interesting (though the menu listings are more compelling than what the server recommended), served in a clear teapot that’s kept hot at the table. But if it’s booze you’re looking for, in addition to cocktails with names like “the Double Tom” (a yuzu collins), beers (Young Master Black Beer from Hong Kong), and wine (Albarino, Soave), there’s sake.
The food: We got those amazing cucumbers that really punch above their weight, laced with spicy oil, Chinkiang vinegar, and soy sauce, dappled with Sichuan peppercorns and dried chiles. I like any vegetable that gets the duck yolk treatment that taste like Cool Ranch Doritos ($18). And the mashed eggplant and peppers are a very savory delicious mush as well. Last visit, family at my table most recently declared the classic fish in pickled cabbage soup (with a choice of fish — we went with flounder) “the best thing” they’d eaten all year, stacked with enoki mushrooms, layered with delicate white fish, a hint of spice, and plenty of pickled greens ($35). I also love the double-cooked pork that commingles with leeks cut on the bias. Sliced beef ($18) in a dry wok pops in a dish that includes lotus root, red and green peppers, chiles, and onions. The only dish I wasn’t into on a recent visit was stir-fried cabbage, slicked and underseasoned.
Prices are fair: Two appetizers, three dishes, and four glasses of wine were just over $200 on a recent visit. Go with a crowd so you can try more, of course, though I can see becoming enough of a regular that I’d stop by for a seat at the bar for one or two dishes I especially crave — one of which might taste like Cool Ranch Doritos.