Friday, February 5, 2016


Fresh off a two star review from the New York Times, La Chine should capitalize on the momentum.  I feel those two stars were more encouraging than enthusiastic, especially after visiting: the restaurant has a lot of things going for it, but it also charges a lot of money for the experience.  And I'm not talking about a lot of money "for Chinese food".  I mean it is a very pricey place, with entrees in the thirty to forty dollar range.  Granted they are served family-style and are quite generous, but most people seem to order (as we did) in a more Western fashion, in keeping with the stylistic modernity of the restaurant.  There's really no reason for it to be family-style, and the elegance of the space would benefit from serving it with fancy Western aplomb.  Moreover, they might be able to soften the price points.

But I get ahead of myself.  We are here, in this calm, warmly lit room.  It will not entirely transport you from the fact that you are in a hotel, but firstly it's a grand hotel, and secondly, the room is attractive.  An immense satellite-shaped chandelier centers the room which is otherwise simply adorned.  Our server was young, but agile, attentive and informative.  Perhaps he was more cautionary than need be in certain aspects: he seemed very concerned that we might order something that overshot our spiciness quotient, but there was but one dish that we tried that night that really packed much punch at all.  Yellowtail
 sashimi (for lack of a better word), was endorsed by our server over the other of their Raw Bar options.  The rosy slips fanned out like a flat pink dahlia in a pool of ruddy Szechuan pepper oil, tiny rings of vermilion chili harbingers of heat.  The fish was sturdy enough to hold up to
 the assertive sauce, which would've overwhelmed a more delicate variety. The soups are the one thing not facilely shareable.  One bowl, one spoon, and while there's enough to divide with another mouth, it lacks the necessary utensils- unless you're okay sharing that, too.  We chose the Chicken Cloud Consomme, mostly for its morels, which were few and far between.  Its eggy "cloud" was more a dense cumulonimbus than wispy cirrus, but the clear, golden broth itself is deep and satisfying, enriched with aged yellow wine and profoundly chickeny stock.

Crispy Spanish mackerel was a showstopper, arriving with the pomp of a glass cloche which releases a plume of woodsy smoke encasing the meaty hunks of fish.  Surprisingly, the aggressive frying of the fish did not compound its fishiness, but it exhibited almost a jerky-like texture.   Its flavor was gently oceanic, kissed with smoke and
 soy.  The most winsome component, however, was the exemplary pickled Napa cabbage.  Absolutely delectable kimchee-esque slabs of slippery cabbage, slicked with tahini for an unexpected nuttiness.  The earthy brightness made this accoutrement exceptional on its own, and elevated the dish to memorable success.

The entrees we chose were less superlative, though that might've been avoided had I paid more attention to Well's review: he specifically panned the two entrees we selected. Such an evitable error = menu regret.  Our versions, however, were at least impeccably fresh, although the overall impression was both lackluster and only marginally Chinese-tasting.  The most interesting component of the black cod was the Chinese wild fern snuggled under the pillowy fresh fish.  It is an intriguing vegetable, similar in texture and appearance to spinach but with a subtle celery or lovage flavor.  Our hyper-spice conscious waiter swapped out its scallion-ginger-soy sauce as specified on the menu for a purportedly zippier preparation, which turned out to be a savory chutney-type paste...
flavorful  enough, but was strangely bereft of any of the spicy zip is was supposed to be providing.  Likewise, the X.O. sauce that pooled beneath the five hulking scallops in their elongated canoe of a dish looked dark and mysterious, but tasted like a generic brown sauce with a hint of tang- again, no chili-pepper spiciness despite our waiter's precautions.  Plus, it was too thin to really cling to the scallops, and humongous as they were, the flavor had zero chance of penetrating their heft.  They actually performed better the next day (such a big portion was unfinishable solo), as they had a chance to marinate overnight in their seasonings as leftovers.  Plus, the pea pods benefited from a little extra cooking as well.  The cod, on the other hand, was an easily manageable portion for a single diner, so portion size isn't always consistent, either.

The wok-fired cauliflower is cumin-heavy (which I liked, but my tablemate found excessive), flanked with thicks slabs of fatty pork belly (which my tablemate liked, but I found excessive).  The florets might be a touch greasy, but the dish is highly grubbable.  That adjective isn't what I imagine for a $16 side dish, but still, tasty is tasty.  Purer are the pea shoots, soy-slicked and glistening green, although notably un-seasonal in the thick of January, and likewise waxing spendy.  That said, to their credit, they capitalize on the super-local honey that the Waldorf-Astoria cultivates
 right there on their very own rooftop, care of New York's finest beekeeper, Andrew Cote of Andrew's Honey.  Glazing that aforementioned pork, and a very springy
 sea bass dotted with asparagus tips and enoki mushrooms, I wish it could've trickled down into the dessert options, although the pink pearl vacherin was a highlight of the evening even without it.  Gorgeously presented, it recalled Paul Liebrandt's masterpiece from Corton (of yore).  Two spiraling meringues sandwich a tangy passionfruit mousse aside a smooth lychee sorbet.... squiggled underneath was a strange pool-noodle of unidentifiable gelatin, the tasted more of plate than anything else.  The luminous pink pearl that hallmarks the dish is certainly eye-catching, but quasi-inedible, a waxy sphere of wan white chocolate whose only redeeming quality is it loveliness.  It's a pity that too many of the dishes sort of share that assessment. I agree wholeheartedly that New York could use some fancy-shmancy Asian cuisine that is precisely what La Chine is aspiring to- I just don't think it quite gets there.


At the waldorf astoria
540 lexington avenue

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