A period piece of a restaurant, Café China opened a month ago in Midtown, and it beckons diners by setting a familiar and romanticized scene: "It's the 1930s. ... This is Shanghai," says the restaurant's website. Décor and marketing notwithstanding, Chowhounds know better—the menu actually leans toward Sichuan, not Shanghai. Regardless, the food is fantastic.
The mapo tofu was "just perfect," says buttertart, because it achieved the right balance of numbing heat and spiciness. "The best we've ever had in North America ... absolutely everything you could possibly wish for in this dish," says buttertart. She also found the fish stew with pickled mustard greens to be exquisite and subtly spicy.
The chef, who once cooked at the nearby Lan Sheng, another hound favorite, is a wizard with sauces and seasoned oils. "[E]ach was packed with flavor, with none of the sameness that sometimes marks dishes elsewhere," buttertart writes. A prime example is the chile oil that accompanies the first-rate pork dumplings and spicy Chengdu wonton, which LeahBaila says is so delicious that it's "drinkable." Other winning dishes: baby cucumber in garlic dressing; crisp sautéed lotus root; cold beef tongue and tripe in roasted chile and peanut sauce; and Auntie Song's fish chowder, with egg and shredded peppers in a rich, red broth.
Café China joins Lan Sheng, Szechuan Gourmet, Great Sichuan, Mapo Tofu, and Grand Sichuan NY in a southerly swath of Midtown that Lau dubs "the Sichuan capital of Manhattan." But what sets the newcomer apart, says buttertart, is that it serves "Sichuan food of a less rustic sort ... distinctive and very exciting. Go there. Please."
Café China [Midtown]
13 E. 37th Street (between Fifth and Madison avenues), Manhattan