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Chinatown This Is Not

Stephen Starr’s Buddakan is about glitzy theatrics and innovative cuisine.


75 Ninth Ave., at 16th St.

"I feel like I’m being led to my safe-deposit box,” someone muttered as we navigated our way through the cavernous, cement-walled rooms at Buddakan, the latest and by far the largest mega–dining palace to open in New York City this year, or possibly ever. Gleaming Mercedes Maybach limousines (okay, one gleaming Maybach limousine) idled outside on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 16th Street, along with assorted other Town Cars and big-money automobiles. By the entrance of what used to be a Nabisco cookie factory, groups of women waited for their dates, their faces illuminated by the firefly glow of open cell phones. Inside the immense (16,000 square feet) space, people congregated around a hotel-style reception desk to “check in” at their tables. Beyond the reception desk is the bar area, as big as the waiting room in a good-size train station, and twice as crowded. Down below the bar are the dining rooms, in an area so vast and potentially confusing that the slinky hostesses had to guide parties of diners down to their tables, like Sherpas on an expedition.

Buddakan is the second wave of Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr’s well-orchestrated shock-and-awe campaign to take culinary Manhattan. Starr, who opened the plush Japanese establishment Morimoto several months ago, believes in economies of scale (he owns twelve restaurants in Philly) and the magic of branding (there’s a Buddakan in Philly, too). But above all, he seems to believe that in this era of megamalls and one-click consumption, what you need, before anything else, is to get people’s attention. At Buddakan this task falls to the French designer Christian Liaigre, who has turned the old cookie factory into a steroidal version of an ancient Chinese mansion. The centerpiece is the “Chinoiserie,” a great hall with oak-covered walls two stories high, chandeliers as big as Volkswagens, and a banquet table seating 30. Off this room is a library lined with glowing golden bookshelves, and several smaller dining catacombs, with scenes from Chinese antiquity drawn like cave paintings on the walls.

This strange, synthetic landscape doesn’t feel like a restaurant. It feels like an oversize nightclub, or a random gathering in the semi-abandoned mansion of some absent Cantonese billionaire. But then the food starts to arrive, and the mood changes. The theme is “modern Asian cuisine,” which sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Buddakan’s non-Chinese chef Michael Schulson produces many dishes that are fresher and more lively than anything you’ll find in Chinatown. The first item to clatter onto our table was a serving of deboned frog’s legs tossed with golden chives. It was followed by a trio of delicately crisped spring rolls stuffed with cool, chile-flavored tuna tartare; round “lollipops” of minced chestnuts and sweet pork encased in lightly fried balls of taro; and melting portions of sea bass rolled in steamed cabbage leaves and flavored with scallion oil and ginger. “I don’t know how Chinese this is,” someone said as the chopsticks began to fly, “but it’s delicious.”

In fact, there are traditional Chinese selections on the menu at Buddakan (very good Cantonese spring rolls, steamed pork buns served in properly steamy bamboo containers), and there are dishes that maintain their classic nature but have been updated in all sorts of inventive ways. On the dim sum portion of the menu, you’ll find dumplings made with Shanghai-style chicken flavored with Chinese red vinegar and yellow sui mei wrapped around fresh portions of king crab. Scallion pancakes loaded with braised short ribs were too heavy even for me, but if you like beef tartare, it’s mixed here with a weirdly effective hot-and-sweet combination of chile pepper and tapioca. The deboned Buddakan version of Peking duck lacks the rich, greasy crunch of the real thing, but the effete foodies at my table went nuts for the Chiang Mai chicken (sliced chicken breast with muddled tomatoes and spoonfuls of ginger-infused yogurt), and the tea-smoked chicken would cause a mini-stampede if it were served in Chinatown.

These dim sum and appetizers are designed to be picked at and passed around in between waves of $11 cocktails. So by the time the entrées roll around, flavors pile up and jumble together, and some dishes tend to get lost in the scrum. I can’t remember much about the many noodle or fried-rice dishes we tried, but a pricey bowl of cracked Dungeness crab ($47) was overwhelmed by its rich chile sauce, and so was the lobster, served in a blizzard of lotus shoots and black beans. The lighter seafood entrées tended to be better, like the steamed red snapper (scattered with crunchy lily bulbs), Nobu-style glazed black cod (with diced eggplants), and fillet of sole steamed in the traditional Cantonese style, with ginger. Best of all were the big, brawny items, like Mongolian lamb chops (encased in a sweet, gingery crust of bread crumbs), braised veal cheeks (served with diced apples over a pile of jasmine rice), and the short ribs (marinated in rice wine, soy sauce, and ginger, baked with a topping of panko bread crumbs, and served over chow fun noodles and mushrooms).