The word on Café China (from a brief mention in the New York Times on 9/13/11) is that the couple who own this place have no restaurant experience but want to provide “a really great Chinese restaurant.” The offerings have a long way to go. The décor is very simple, no tablecloths, but the prices are so jaw-droppingly low for midtown Mahattan, who could complain?
The wait staff is friendly and well-meaning, but there is a lack of snap and focus; the absence of training is glaringly evident. There was a lot of repetitive conversation in getting our order straight. The staffer did not know the menu. During the meal, several pieces of food fell onto our formica table; staffers passed by at least a dozen times before someone noticed and picked them up--leaving a large smear of sauce on the table. On the plus side, they were conscientious about keeping our water glasses full.
For appetizers our party of three ordered Savory Tofu with Celery Shoots ($7), Edamame ($5), and Crispy Savory Fish ($10). The tofu & celery was very nice, with meaty-tasting firm tofu strips plus a bit of chickeny-rich broth and an intense celery flavor (it looked like Chinese celery, which is thin and full-flavored). The edamame was standard-issue. The boneless-fillet fish proved to be breaded with panko, fried, and served with a hot and sweet dip. It was very good, with the tasty breading and dip outweighing the bland fish. We asked what kind of fish, and the answer came back “sole.” We didn’t think so. Sole is too expensive to prepare 6 ounces of cooked fish and sell it for $10.
Our first main dish was Smoked Tea Duck over Rice ($14) which appeared to be the other way around. There was a good deal of rice, but the portion was a generous amount overall, however, and there turned out to be more duck there than met the eye. It was really tasty and a good value; however, any tea flavor in the duck was modest.
Spicy Cumin Lamb ($19) was a disappointment, big-time. We were sort of hoping for a rendering similar to the great northern-Chinese Fu Run restaurant in Flushing, NY, where they lay whole cumin seeds on with crazed abandon. No such luck. There were plenty of dried red chili peppers but no discernable cumin. The lamb tasted tired, maybe reheated, not freshly-made. The staffer told us there was a new chef and he probably ran out of cumin. He took it back to the kitchen to adjust .The revised version might have had a slight dusting of ground cumin but not enough to matter.
Auntie Song’s Fish Chowder ($10) was the standout, absolutely delicious and highly recommended. It was like a fish egg-drop soup, a satisfyingly large portion with plenty of fish pieces, egg, and mushrooms, in a very tasty broth. It would make a wonderful lunch dish.
For dessert we tried Coconut Ripieno ($8), coconut shreds in an ice milk served in half of a coconut shell. A generous and very tasty serving. We finished with Green Peony Tea, which at $8 for one serving was probably Café China’s best profit center.
On the value chain this place is impossible to beat, especially considering its midtown location. The food is decent and authentic. Hopefully they will smooth out the rough spots and realize their ambitious vision. At present there is no liquor license, so BYOB.