In America, Chinese food has never gotten the kind of adulation that it routinely gets today. Food writers rhapsodize about the joys of pure, seafood-based Cantonese cuisine, the fiery heat of Hunan cuisine and the ma la flavor of Sichuan cuisine almost every week in a major publication. Two normal-looking Sichuan restaurants in Manhattan, Café China and Lan Sheng, got Michelin Stars in the 2013 Red Guide. The food magazine Lucky Peach dedicated its entire fifth issue to the idea of Chinatown.
Yet many New Yorkers who think nothing of spending $600 on a meal for two at Marea, an Italian restaurant, would pale at the thought of doing the same for even the best Chinese food in town. Ambitious Chinese restaurants still confront a kind of glass ceiling when it comes to mainstream respect and success.
I think I know why. It's not, as you might expect, that Chinese food is tainted by the takeout joints that fill strip malls across the country. (Olive Garden and Papa John's didn't stop Mario Batali from getting four stars at Del Posto.) It's that even many of the best Chinese restaurants in the country still abide by the same philosophy of menu writing as those lame strip mall takeout joints. They write menus that are too damn long.
Take Legend Bar & Restaurant, a humdrum-looking but well-respected Sichuan restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
As a big fan of Sichuan food, I was excited to visit after reading a glowing review by Julia Moskin in the New York Times. But I went for dinner once -- and it was bad. I still remember the swampy texture and muddy flavors of the oversized fish and cabbage stew I was served that first night. I figured I'd ordered wrong, so I gave it another shot. I had the same mediocre experience. So I didn't go back for months. Finally, I decided to give it one last chance to prove itself as a solid Sichuan restaurant. I revisited the Times review, I trawled Chowhound, I read a piece in Serious Eats and put together what it seemed would be the perfect order. And Legend finally delivered on its promise. It was superb, with flavors as vibrant and textures as refined as those at any chichi pasta dispensary around the city.
The problem is that it took hours of research and two bad meals to get to the good stuff. Because Legend serves no fewer than 218 different menu items, plus desserts, drinks and nightly specials. Granted, some are variations of the same dish: Sautéed Beef Filet with Pickled Peppers, Braised Frogs with Pickled Peppers and Braised Young Cuttlefish with Pickled Peppers, all $16.95, represent just half of the offerings in the "Pickled Peppers" section of the menu. Even so, no one kitchen can make 218 different dishes, or even 118 items, equally well.
So why not, to use a culinary analogy beloved by editors, trim away the fat, leaving a much shorter menu brimming with, say, 30 or 40 fantastic dishes? Mission Chinese Food, a relatively new and much beloved restaurant 25 blocks southeast of Legend, shows how beneficial doing so might be.
Like Legend, Mission Chinese serves Sichuan-inspired food and isn't wildly expensive. Unlike Legend, Mission Chinese was recently named the single best new restaurant of the year by both Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg and Pete Wells of the New York Times.
To some extent, it's not really fair to compare it to Legend. Mission Chinese has the advantage of chef Danny Bowien, whom GQ recently dubbed the most exciting cook of 2012. But I don't think the whole disparity between the two restaurants can be chalked up to his own genius. I think a big part of the difference is due to the fact that Bowien's menu includes just 34 items, less than a sixth as many as Legend's. So you don't have to sift through lots of chaff to find the best dishes there: kung pao pastrami, salt cod fried rice, Chongqing chicken wings. And in the three ample meals I've had there, I haven't tasted a single dud.
Still not convinced? Consider the wildly divergent experiences of two new high-end Chinese restaurants, Wong and Hakkasan, in Manhattan.
Wong is a small, humble eatery in the West Village owned by battle-tested chef Simpson Wong. Its menu lists lists 20 items, including dessert. (Nightly specials fill it out to nearly Mission Chinese size.) It got a warm two-star review from Pete Wells back in January.
Hakkasan, with its sprawling menu of over 70 items, got obliterated with a withering one-star review just six months later, especially crushing considering that it's much more expensive than Wong. Wells described the restaurant's steamed dumplings as "first-rate" and said its lobster was "tender and nuanced." If only he hadn't also been presented with a host of interlopers that he said "only occasionally rise above the ordinary!"
I can't demonstrate absolute statistical certitude here -- I'm no Nate Silver -- but doesn't it just make sense that, while dining out, you'd want be able pick anything off the menu and be assured that the chef puts his full weight behind its quality?
Of course, there's one big problem here. A lot of Americans aren't willing to brave spicy food, or weird food. That's encouraged even acclaimed Sichuan restaurants -- including Legend -- to keep serving beef with broccoli and mu shu pork long after they become well known for their spicy food. They're worried they'll lose business if they do otherwise. I can sympathize with that, especially in parts of the country that are unaccustomed to authentic Chinese food. The restaurant business is hard, so no one wants to alienate customers.
But here's my point: accommodating unadventurous eaters forces these restaurants to effectively double the size of their menus, making it twice as hard to find the good stuff and, more importantly, making it harder for the kitchen staff to become absolutely proficient at preparing the best few dishes on the menu. That makes the experience worse for the customers who actually enjoy the restaurant's signature cuisine. So excellent Chinese restaurants, in their attempt to appease the masses, end up alienating aficionados and critics. That might make sense as a way to maximize revenue in the short term, but it doesn't make sense as a way to build up the reputation of a cuisine over time.
And it's not like the two are always mutually exclusive. Just ask Danny Bowien. The line for dinner at his restaurant has stretched to the end of the block every night this week.