Chinese cuisine

Restaurant review: Cha Kee in Manhattan’s Chinatown


All good New Yorkers know that Lower Manhattan would lose part of its identity if Chinese businesses were to disappear from Chinatown. In Little Italy, when Italian-Americans moved away, real estate brokers cleansed part of the area of ​​its ethnic identity by renaming it NoLIta. If this tactic succeeds a few blocks south, we might see apartment listings on Doyers and Pell Streets advertising their prime location in the heart of SoChiTo.

Take a walk around the neighborhood any day and this scenario won’t seem as far-fetched as it should be. Chinatown started emptying almost two years ago, when Covid-19 was still a rumor in New York City, but a poisoned anti-Asian mood was mounting, and it’s still not as packed as before. The tourists on which the region depends have still not returned in force. And in recent years, the attention of the city’s standing class of Chinese restaurant geeks has shifted to other parts of the city, particularly East Village and Flushing, Queens.

But there’s a new restaurant that deserves their attention down on Mott Street, under the hundreds of orange, yellow and pink paper lanterns that a bunch of Chinatown boosters slipped onto the sidewalk. Cha Kee arrived in September with a menu that is basically Chinese but folds back and forth to borrow ideas from other places including Japan. Revolution isn’t Cha Kee’s goal, but it holds more surprises than most of the neighborhood’s old familiar haunts.

The dining room is quiet and understatedly elegant, mixing a Mid-Century look with East Asian motifs. The seats are inspired by the China chair, a 1944 design by Hans J. Wegner who himself drew on furniture from the late Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty. The floors and tables are in bare wood. Small lights hang from a canopy of huge sheets of green metal.

None of this stops Cha Kee from being a place you could take your grandma and, swapping a Wegner seat for one of the high chairs stacked near the door, a baby. Suffice to say that Cha Kee wants to be a real Chinatown restaurant.

The concentrate of concentration working upside down in the open kitchen is the chef, Akiko Thurnauer. Originally from Tokyo, she once ran an idiosyncratic, mostly Japanese, restaurant on Eldridge Street called Family Recipe. He never achieved real fame, but he did gain a cult following from local followers, many of whom never recovered. its closure in 2014.

His menu at Cha Kee roams China freely. Hong Kong curry puffs are the starting point for crispy puff pastry triangles folded around a thin but powerful layer of spicy beef. They didn’t last long at my table. Crunchy and chewy ribbons of jellyfish, accompanied by chunks of cucumber and sweet potato noodles, bask in a dressing whose tangy and numbing flavor instantly evokes Sichuan.

In Mrs. Thurnauer’s homage to Macao Chicken Curry, firm potatoes and green olives complement the blackened, simmered chicken pieces, but the broth deviates from tradition: instead of the canonical walnut curry. sweet turmeric yellow coconut, it makes an intense brick-thick red sauce with paprika and other ground spices. The dish is known in Asia as Portuguese chicken. It doesn’t taste very Portuguese, but Mrs. Thurnauer’s taste does. The recipe is good, wherever it comes from.

The branzino that she rubs with chili-lemongrass paste and that she wraps in a banana leaf which passes on the grill must come from the ray sambal; it’s very nice, but I missed the wild spiciness of the Singaporean original.

After closing Family Recipe, Ms. Thurnauer prepared the broths at Ivan Ramen for a while. Some of the adventurous spirit of this restaurant may have made its way into Cha Kee’s bone marrow ramen, a frequent special dish that arrives with a box-length section of beef shinbone. spaghetti spreading from the bowl. I forgot all about the noodles once I realized I was supposed to scrape the bone marrow on the youtiao hidden at the base of the bowl.

Most recently, Ms. Thurnauer cooked at Mission Chinese on East Broadway. There’s an echo of this restaurant’s soymilk braised cabbage in Cha Kee, with braised romaine. It lacks the chamomile that made the Mission version so transporting, but I admired the lift Mrs. Thurnauer provides with the pumpkin seeds and seaweed flakes, and loved the way the outer leaves of the youngsters Lettuce heads were barely wilted while the kernel remained crisp.

In Mission Chinese, the kitchen tended to try to make every dish a three-ring circus. This is not the way of Mrs. Thurnauer. His style is less frantic, and at times he can be a little too calm. His tiger salad might work better as a garnish for a piece of fish or meat that needs a burst of herbs than as a side dish on its own. The stir-fry of noodles, tomatoes and scrambled eggs didn’t have much to say either.

But often a clever idea lurks in the landscape, waiting to be noticed. Fried rice with shrimp would still be appealing without the little silk tufts of scallops. Scattered like tiny tumbleweeds, they give the dish a little push towards the ocean. And while people who shy the sight of okra may wish Ms. Thurnauer had omitted it from her rendition of black pepper beef, fans will appreciate the way she serves the dish in a nest of fried noodles, pitting their crunch against that of okra. go.

In the best Chinatown tradition, dessert isn’t a big deal at Cha Kee. There is only one on offer, a lemon meringue pie with more meringue than lemon. Both are eclipsed by the swirl of soft serve ice cream Ms. Thurnauer wins, making out of Hong Kong-style milk tea.