Most of my New York restaurant tips come from one particularly foodie friend, who I regularly check in with to see where he has been of late – and where I should be going while I am in town. For the past few years the same place has been top of his list: Café China, which serves standout Sichuan cuisine in an area of the city largely bereft of interesting restaurants, between the New York Public Library and the Empire State Building. I’ve been a regular there for the past year and now it’s my top spot too.
In terms of design, Café China is perfect – its 1930s-style decor is slightly theatrical without being try hard. The tubular chrome chairs and booths wouldn’t be out of place in a classic diner, but the soft lighting, vintage Shanghai artwork and trays of martinis being ferried around the room strike a pleasing note of opulence while still being relaxed and fun (although the inability to reserve a table for fewer than four people at lunch or eight at dinner is a bore). And the food is more than a match for the interiors: Café China was awarded a Michelin star in 2012, the year after it opened, and continues to earn it with its inventive and modern menu.
The best dishes focus on texture and spice. My friend swears by the mung bean jelly ($8) in garlic and roasted peppercorn chilli oil, but its soft, slightly gelatinous textures are slightly lost on me and my apparently not-so-discerning palate. For me it’s all about the spicy Chengdu wontons ($8), which are fiery little pork dumplings in a spicy sauce. Another highlight is the kung fu shrimp ($25), which is a visually arresting – and crunchy tasting – combination of giant shell-on shrimps, peanuts, peppercorn and dried chilli. It’s pleasingly textural and like just about everything on offer – including the cocktails; the vodka-based Lucky Lychee ($15) pairs particularly well with the spicy flavours – totally delicious.