I can’t remember the last time I was served crispy beef by someone with a tattoo,” whispered Mrs. Platt as we wedged ourselves into one of the long communal tables at the boisterous newfangled Chinese restaurant RedFarm, which opened a couple of months ago on Hudson Street in the West Village. The brightly lit little townhouse space is built with wooden rafters and banquettes, and decorated here and there with familiar casual barnyard touches like wooden packing crates, dangling candles, and the kinds of flowerpots you see hanging in the courtyard homes of old Chinese houses. There were plenty of tattooed diners, too, sitting at the long tables, which were set with mismatched chairs as in a country kitchen. They sipped fashionable, non-Chinese cocktails like the RedFarm Manhattan, and picked at thick, American-style egg rolls stuffed with Katz’s pastrami, and dishes with antic names like Shu Mai Shooters.
RedFarm is bankrolled by that ubiquitous restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba), but the concept belongs to the great czar of New York’s increasingly moribund Chinese-food scene, Ed Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld has had a hand in numerous Chinese dining trends over the decades (the seventies establishment he managed, Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, launched the General Tso’s chicken craze on an unsuspecting city), and he’s been involved with many high-profile Chinese restaurants, including Shun Lee Palace and Chinatown Brasserie. As the catchy name indicates, RedFarm is an attempt to update the ancient, tired formulas and market them to the new, more casual generation of big-city diners. This means, among other things, that there are no reservations at this “farm style” Chinese restaurant, and that the bistro-style one-page menu is imbued with what the proprietors eagerly describe as a “Greenmarket style” sensibility.
Fusion concepts like this are filled with many potential pitfalls, but Schoenfeld had the good sense to enlist the talents of the great Hong Kong dim sum chef Joe Ng, with whom he worked at Chinatown Brasserie. Ng’s cooking is playful and fresh, and although some of his forward-thinking creations veer off the rails, most of the food is a cut above the kind of run-of-the-mill cooking you see these days down in Chinatown. I didn’t discern any Greenmarket qualities in my fatty, slightly leaden pastrami egg roll (served with a nice honey-mustard and kaffir-lime sauce), but Mrs. Platt’s brittle, deliciously candied spicy crispy-beef appetizer was so good that I ordered it on my next visit. Ditto the classic, Shanghai-style pork-and-crab soup dumplings, and the impressive, football-size RedFarm chicken salad, which is tossed with mounds of lettuce and fresh corn and spiked with giant spears of asparagus.
Several of Ng’s larger, entrée-style dishes tend to have the same treacly-sweet flavor profile, and some of them work better than others. The glutinously gooey claypot chicken tasted like something you’d find in a not very good Thai restaurant in Guangdong. I couldn’t stop eating the sugary grilled short ribs with cauliflower and broccoli, however, or the slippery chunks of black cod, which Ng cooks with fresh yellow leeks and serves with a pot of housemade XO sauce on the side. The menu includes professional renditions of old favorites like cashew shrimp, and a meltingly tender version of smoked chicken (served as a special) that Ng smokes in a wok with brown sugar and jasmine tea. Even at this hipster Chinese restaurant, the desserts are negligible, but if you have to get one, Mrs. Platt suggests the mousse, flavored, imaginatively enough, with litchi.
The young husband-and-wife team behind the new midtown restaurant Café China are also attempting to rework what they describe as the classic New York “assembly-line Chinese food” experience, albeit in a different, possibly more radical way. Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang (he’s from Shanghai; she’s from Harbin, in the north) have decorated their modest, dimly lit restaurant with artifacts (Art Deco mirrors, pheasant screens, etc.) from the glory days of thirties Shanghai. When you call for a reservation, your name is written on a card and placed on your table, just the way they do at the finer restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing. The man in the kitchen, Xiaofeng Liao, is a classically trained cook from Sichuan, and his menu (duck tongue with peppercorn; “salivating frog”) has been designed to reintroduce traditional Chinese cuisine to generations of New Yorkers weaned on carryout and, yes, General Tso’s chicken.
I never enjoyed a bite of “salivating frog” at Café China, but my serving of bang bang chicken was flavorful and gristle-free, and the dumplings we sampled (try the floppy, soft-skinned pork wontons sunk in chile oil) had a fresh, home-style quality. Unlike many Sichuan joints around town, the Chungking spicy chicken here isn’t overwhelmed with so many chile peppers that you can’t find the chicken, and the lamb in the spicy cumin lamb is cut in tender chunks and fried with sweet onions and stalks of coriander that you can taste in your nose. There are other unexpected pleasures at this satisfying little restaurant (try the braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens, and the mouth-tingling ma po tofu), but the most unexpected thing of all might be the strangely palatable desserts, which include scoops of cooling mandarin-orange sorbet served in a frozen, hollowed-out orange shell, and wedges of rich chocolate-ganache cheesecake, which tastes like it’s been imported from one of the better hotel kitchens in midtown.