Food scholars have long puzzled over the etymology of the term brasserie. They began, apparently, as venues where beer was made, and the term came to encompass a certain kind of casual French diner, a place with mirrors and a zinc bar, featuring hearty, beer-friendly favorites like pig’s knuckles and choucroute garni. But these days, in this restaurant-mad city, it seems anything can be a brasserie. Witness the arrival, several months ago, in the old Time Cafe space on Lafayette Street, of Chinatown Brasserie. At this spangled nightclub of a place, tasseled lanterns and partitions made of lacquered wood have replaced the usual potted palms and acres of brass railing, and the specialties of the house are dim sum and a gourmet version of General Tso’s chicken. Then there is Brasserie Ruhlmann, new in Rockefeller Center, which has an almost-too-predictable brasserie menu and an elaborate décor devoted to the style of the Art Deco designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, making the room look like a swank Parisian hotel lobby circa 1922.
In the case of Chinatown Brasserie, the proprietors use the term to convey a sense of casual, swank familiarity. The name is designed to evoke memories of old American Chinatown with its familiar specialties (good though curiously un-crispy crispy orange beef, ordinary spare ribs, pleasingly steamy piles of shrimp fried rice), served on little round silver dishes. But if you’ve been dining out around town over the last few years, you’ve seen this kind of place before. Chinatown Brasserie is yet another large, theatrical, Asian-themed dining palace, a place where the mostly Western waitstaff are made to squeeze into black ninjalike outfits and mini Suzie Wong costumes, where the $12 cocktails tend to be sweet and highly colored, and where you can party until the wee hours in a dimly lit subterranean bar space decked out with large and impressively intricate landscape sculptures imported from China and an actual pond, filled with lily pads and a school of picturesque and gently gliding koi.
These props, which reportedly cost $6 million, might have made an impression five years ago, but compared with the grandiose, Godzilla-size dining establishments of today (Buddakan, Megu, Morimoto), they barely register. If you’re looking for a decent approximation of a certain kind of American Chinese meal, however, you could do an awful lot worse. The restaurant serves an impressive selection of dim sum, concocted by a Hong Kong-born dim-sum chef named Joe Ng. The ones I liked best involved shrimp, particularly the yellow, triangular shrimp-and-snow-pea-leaf dumplings, and the little pouches of translucent rice-paper skin stuffed with shrimp and Chinese chives. My wonton-addicted daughters considered the wonton soup to be excellent, as was the very un-Chinese grilled-beef salad, loaded with refreshing amounts of basil and mint.
The simpler entrées at Chinatown Brasserie tend to work better than the more elaborate ones. My order of flattened, crispy duck was nearly a third the price of the laboriously carved, predictable Peking duck ($48) and tasted at least as good. A helping of poached lobster slopped over “long life” noodles seemed limp and fishy, unlike the tangle of lightly crunchy egg noodles bombed with shrimp and fresh scallops. If you order fish, make it the gingery, slightly spicy monkfish, or the branzino, which is steamed with slivers of ginger and scallion. The General Tso’s was as compulsively edible here as it is everywhere else, but I preferred the crispy-skinned chicken, smothered in garlic, or the “white chicken,” sautéed slices tossed with asparagus and leeks. If you feel like a massive hit of sugar, order the peanut parfait with candied bananas, or the pleasingly chocolatey ice-cream sundae, both of which are good desserts for a Chinese restaurant but not so good for a brasserie.
The other new brasserie in town occupies a star-crossed space on the northern side of Rockefeller Plaza. Traditionally, this is a parched corner of the restaurant savannah, a challenging region where rents are onerous and proprietors try to eke out a living catering to business lunchers and random families of goggle-eyed tourists. Two of the owners of Brasserie Ruhlmann are old hands at the brasserie trade (they operate La Goulue on Madison Avenue), but, so far, even they have had their share of troubles here. The room is decorated in cool, dark Ruhlmann style (somber wood paneling, crimson cushions, tall lozenge-shaped mirrors), which might look admirable to a downtown aesthete but is a little frosty if you’ve just finished your tour of the NBC studios and are looking for a decent salad frisée. The restaurant’s first chef left, and the proprietors have turned to the talented Laurent Tourondel, who has shown a facility for breathing life into similarly tired restaurant formulas, like the steakhouse (BLT Steak) and the haute fish shack (BLT Fish).