Chinese Modernization

MainlandPhoto: Kenneth Chen

My father, an authority on Peking-duck chefs, thought he spied the genuine article the other evening at a new restaurant on Third Avenue called Mainland. This was a surprise, since Mainland appears at first to be pseudo-Chinese in almost every way. To begin with, there’s the restaurant’s non-authentic-sounding executive chef, Brian Young, who actually is Chinese but grew up in Canada. Then there’s the giant brass Buddha’s head suspended over the bar, which is not something you’re likely to see in China, even in rapidly modernizing, though largely un-Buddhist cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Then there’s the dimly lit New York–style cocktail lounge, with its trumped-up (though admittedly refreshing) fusion cocktails and its view of the very Italianate wood-burning Peking-duck oven. The dining rooms are polished, even refined, in the way upscale fusion restaurants are in the city these days (impressive stone-carved dragons decorate the walls, as do thatches of painted gold bamboo), but when you sit down to eat, you get knives and forks, and when you ask for chopsticks, they appear to be the disposable Japanese kind you get at a sushi bar.

1081 Third Ave., nr. 64th St.; 212-888-6333

Liberty View
21 South End Ave., nr. W. Thames St.; 212-786-1888

At Mainland, however, things are not always what they seem. It turns out that the Peking-duck chef, who trundles around the restaurant with his cart, carving endless wood-burnt Peking ducks, is from, of all places, Beijing. Not only that, but he studied his delicate art in the Chinese capital, in one of the most renowned Peking-duck restaurants in the world. The duck is cooked over peachwood and cherrywood, which, according to Mainland’s proprietors (who also run the prosperous Ollie’s chain), is how things were done long ago, in old Peking. The duck is presented without any fusion frills, with steamed pancakes from a bamboo warmer, shaved scallions, and plum sauce. It looks like the real thing, and it mostly tastes that way, although my friend the Food Aristocrat protested that the plum sauce was a little bitter, like Robitussin cough syrup. None of which seemed to faze my father, who regards the dish with a nostalgic, almost Proustian fondness (he spent much of his foreign-service career in China and speaks fluent Mandarin) and who pointed out between big, unruly bites that if you live in Manhattan, you should take your authentic Peking duck where you can get it.

It turns out Mainland also has plenty to offer besides a decent facsimile of classically cooked Peking duck. There are excessive fusion items on the menu, many of which seem to involve large hunks of Western-style meat (copious helpings of dull porterhouse steak, overthick mustard-crusted lamb chops, and undercooked “surf and turf” beef rolls wrapped in shrimp and noodles), and you should mostly ignore them. Focus instead on Young’s more subtle creations. He fills his superior, crunchy-skinned spring rolls with lamb instead of pork, and instead of squab to wrap in lettuce leaves, he serves up a sweet mix of minced duck, shiitake mushrooms, and pine nuts. Then there are the excellent dumplings, which come in seared pot-sticker form (filled, properly, with ground pork and served over a nice scallion-and-ginger sauce), or floating with chili oil and threads of spinach in a hot broth, or, most delicious of all, stuffed with a mash of shark fin, which dissolves gently in the mouth when you eat it with a teaspoon of Chinese red vinegar.

If you order one beef dish at Mainland, make it the short ribs, which are braised in a clay pot with red wine and cassia root, among other esoteric spices, and served with a crisp Chinese bun for mopping the sauce. The best seafood dishes by far are the Dungeness crabs (stacked in a toppling pyramid of shells and bombed with a chili-garlic powder and toasted shallots) and the lobster, which is cracked over a bed of crispy noodles, in the Cantonese manner, and doused with a soupy mix of scallions, chestnuts, and shreds of egg white. When the lobster hit the table, my father’s studied, diplomatic veneer cracked a little. “I can’t stop,” he said helplessly, as his chopsticks fluttered over the table. “I’m in trouble here.”

Luckily for him, dessert arrived. This is a confused, anti-climactic time in most Chinese establishments, and it’s no different here. We tried a white-chocolate pot du crème that was thick as glue, and a coconut tasting that includes a fuzzy item that dribbled a curious green substance when tweaked with a fork. If you crave sweets at the end of your meal at Mainland, wait for the petits fours, which include fancy uptown gelées flavored, in the classic Chinese style, with a hint of litchi.

There are no petits fours available at Liberty View, on the southern edge of Battery Park City, although you can order classic desserts like red-bean pancakes or, better yet, “eight treasure” rice pudding (sweet, sticky rice molded with red-bean paste, peanuts, and honey dates) and enjoy them outside at little café tables as you look across the turbid waters of the Hudson at the Statue of Liberty. Despite this most American of settings, Liberty View feels more like a modern Chinese restaurant than does anything you’re likely to encounter in Chinatown these days. When you go out to eat at a hot new restaurant in Shanghai, say, or the new neighborhoods of Chengdu, you’ll probably visit a clean little place with calligraphy on the walls, like at Liberty View. Because the old jumble of tenements and crooked alleyways is fast disappearing in modern China, you’ll probably find yourself dining in a faceless modern apartment complex (often by a turbid, slow-moving river) that looks an awful lot like, well, Battery Park City.

Luckily, much of the food at Liberty View, cooked up by a reputable Shanghai chef named Bai Qian, is authentic, too. Being Shanghainese, Bai produces the usual array of soup dumplings, the best of which are stuffed with crabmeat and pork, served on individual soup spoons. Other Shanghai specialties include softly braised pork meatballs (“lion’s heads”) and hot bowls of wontons filled with bits of green vegetable and pork. There’s also a good crispy spring chicken (spooned with a peppery “special” sauce) and a series of excellent fish dishes, like hacked lobster with ginger and scallions, sea bass sprinkled with pine nuts, and crunchy slivers of freshwater eel tossed with baby shrimp, scallions, and a hint of chili oil. The soft-shell crabs are good when they’re in season, and so are the Dungeness crabs, buried under great drifts of chopped, frizzled garlic. The best dessert is the “eight treasure” rice pudding. You won’t find a better example of this sweet, subtle dish in all of Battery Park City, not to mention in the booming suburbs of Shanghai.

Address: 1081 Third Ave., nr. 64th St.; 212-888-6333
Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 P.M.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $18; entrées, $19 to $49.
Ideal Meal: Pot stickers, shark-fin dumplings, lamb spring rolls, Cantonese lobster on egg noodles, clay-pot spare ribs, Peking duck.
Note: Peking duck isn’t usually a bar food, but it is here. Enjoy it at the Buddha Bar with the surprisingly palatable Yangtze Sigh, made with gin, muddled shiso leaves, and champagne.

Liberty View
Address: 21 South End Ave., nr. W. Thames St.; 212-786-1888
Hours: 11 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $2 to $12; entrées, $6 to $30.
Ideal Meal: Juicy buns with crabmeat and pork, crispy spring chicken in house special sauce, shredded eel and shrimp with chives, “eight treasure” rice pudding.
Note: “We have a normal American menu or a special Chinese one,” said our genial waitress. “The special one is better.” Take her advice.

Chinese Modernization