So when, exactly, did the glamour and mystery of Chinese cuisine disappear from New York? Among the city’s querulous, increasingly embattled cadre of Chinese-food geeks, the question is a matter of intense, even Talmudic debate. Was it during the eighties, when the Hunan Balcony knockoffs began proliferating along the avenues like rabbits? Or was it in the nineties, with the glittering procession of Japanese fusion joints, led by Nobu? One thing is beyond dispute: The Chinese-food scene these days belongs mostly to the tourists, and to a few iron-stomached chowhounds with sturdy shoes. Most of the establishments in old Chinatown, and in Queens, are pitched for the local-neighborhood market. The great regional fiefdoms (Joe’s Shanghai, Grand Sichuan) have broken into so many warring factions that it’s difficult to keep track of them without a trained guide. Even the grand chefs in Hong Kong and Shanghai don’t come through town anymore; they go straight to Vegas, or they stay home, where the big money is.
But now Ian Schrager, of all people, aims to change this sorry state of affairs. The hotelier and style impresario is a sentimental New Yorker, after all, and he has conceived his new restaurant, Wakiya, which opened not long ago off the lobby in his newly refurbished Gramercy Park Hotel, as a return to the grandeur of old-fashioned Chinese dining. By the standards of today’s ostentatious Asian-themed dining palaces, however, Wakiya is not that grand at all. The room is a narrow bowling alley of a space, wedged into the south side of the hotel. The window shades are drawn, obscuring the view of the park, and the dominant color motif is black overlaid with shades of gold and bordello scarlet. The walls are stenciled with patterns of rococo tapestry, and curtains of red string hang from the ceiling, between rows of cramped black tabletops. The bar area is also puny, by the standards of today, and if you visit the jet-black unisex bathroom, you will find each stall fitted, baroquely, with a gold candelabra.
My friend, a grand eminence on the Chinese-food-geek scene, seemed unfazed by these disorienting surroundings. “I remain eternally hopeful,” he said, contemplating the strange, violet-colored menu in scholarly silence. Schrager’s original partner was supposed to be Alan Yau, owner of a string of upscale Chinese restaurants in London. But that plan fell through, and after an exhaustive search, he settled on Yuji Wakiya, from, of all places, Tokyo. The Japanese are experts in the art of culinary assimilation, and they have evolved their own highly technical style of Chinese cooking, which tends to emphasize presentation and the purity of ingredients over the clattering chaos of a classic Chinese feast. So in due course, a procession of carefully wrought dim sum facsimiles emerged from Wakiya’s kitchen—excellent Shanghai soup dumplings, very nice shrimp-and-chive dumplings folded in translucent skins—followed by melting strips of pork belly doused with chile and soy, and a block of smooth tofu layered with more chile and crunchy black sesame seeds.
“This is quite tasty,” said the China Expert, scarfing up the pork. There wasn’t very much of it, though, and soon it was gone. Ditto the very un-Chinese seared Washu beef ($30 for several bites), the thimble-size helping of crab-roe soup ($12 per bowl), and the gummy spring rolls that seemed to have been cooked not in a wok but in a hot-towel steamer. The main courses, when they arrived, were served not on bountiful platters but on elegantly crimped designer plates. I enjoyed my taste of creamy lemon shrimp, and a tubular omelette stuffed with fried rice. But a dish called “smoked lamb with black-pepper sauce” consisted of a few tiny lamb chops in a dreckish, not very peppery sauce. The “Wakiya seafood toast” was spongy with grease, and the house Peking duck turned out to be a meager arrangement of dry, precooked skin, with little stacks of even drier duck meat on the side. The China Expert took a taste, then put down his pointy chopsticks in solemn silence. “They’ve drained all the majesty,” he said.
As a general rule, the bigger, more intensely flavored a dish Wakiya attempted to duplicate, the lighter and more insipid it tended to taste. The great Sichuan specialty “fiery-pepper hunt chicken” had little fire to it (even though the chicken is buried in red peppers), and even less chicken (“This is an emperor-has-no-clothes dish,” said the China Expert, as he searched in vain for his chicken). The “tan tan noodles” (known to local Sichuan addicts as “dan dan noodles”) were watery and also lacked heat, and the sweet-and-sour pork (called “tong su pork” on the menu) was small-portioned, fatty, and oversweet, like something you’d find on the foreigners’ menu at a not very good Cantonese hotel. Except for a festive item called “Wakiya sizzling rice crisps,” the noodle-and-rice section provided little relief, and when I ordered a $35 dish called lobster “chin san” style, it turned out to be seasonal vegetables and a few chaste shreds of lobster steamed in a bamboo basket with oolong tea.
Surprisingly for a Chinese restaurant, the best thing about Wakiya is the dessert. You can order a fusion-style affogato, dripped, the Vietnamese way, into a cup of crushed cocoa, espresso, and condensed-milk ice cream, or the restaurant’s signature mango pudding, made from freshly mashed mangoes. There is a professionally made warm chocolate tart, and a lemony génoise cake decked with blood-orange sorbet and milky chunks of almond tofu. But as we picked at these non-Chinese delicacies, the question lingered: Who, exactly, is this strange, denatured brand of Chinese food designed to please? Possibly, it’s Ian Schrager’s traditional target audience, the nutritionally challenged supermodel. Or possibly it’s Diddy himself, whom I spied, one evening during Fashion Week, wearing a ghostly white T-shirt, with a plate of untouched food in front of him. But it certainly isn’t the China Expert and the rest of his beleaguered colleagues, who greeted each other in the nightclub shadows, wearily paid their inflated bills, and left as soon as they could.