Just as Fuzhou restaurants had become so numerous, especially along East Broadway, that there seemed no way to distinguish them; and just as the giant Hong Kong banquet and dim sum palaces had slunk off like dinosaurs looking for a place to die; and just as the Malaysian restaurants had stopped multiplying like the Shanghai and Vietnamese places before them, surrendering our enthusiasm in the process; so had the neighborhood seemed almost dead again, except to the throngs of Chinese shoppers who descend each day from all corners of the city to buy the freshest meats, fish, and produce, and the Noah’s ark of dried sea creatures set out on the sidewalk in boxes, expecting nothing from Chinatown’s myriad restaurants except a bowl of congee and a fried cruller.
But Chinatown never stops remaking itself. Get a glimpse of its new face at Congee, which opened without fanfare on a stretch of the Bowery that hasn’t seen a good restaurant in decades, if ever. Congee is obviously inspired by Congee Village, the neighborhood’s biggest success story of the last decade, which, though it recently doubled in size, still requires 30-minute waits. The Congee Village formula incorporates dishes from Hong Kong and south China, throwing in things from the Chinese diaspora of Southeast Asia and America. On one hand are funky organ meats that most Occidentals wouldn’t touch; on the other are American favorites like chow mein and fried chicken. You can blow a wad on abalone or shark’s fin soup, but the lower end of the price range is equally well-served, with loads of dumplings, over-rice bargains, and, of course, congees.
While Congee Village is located just south of Delancey Street, Congee is planted in the older Chinatown, in a high-ceilinged space that could have been a bank lobby or religious sanctuary. Bacchanalian grapes adorn the faux stained-glass windows, and grapes made from Christmas ornaments dangle from the ceiling. Despite the vinic motif, wine is nowhere to be found, except in the red rice-wine vinegar thoughtfully served with soups, the traditional start of a south Chinese meal. Eight precious fish maw soup ($9.95, easily enough for four) is particularly good, though after identifying scallops, squid, shrimp, and the maws, which are cottony like the ends of Q-tips, we gave up counting. A dash of vinegar sends the soup into orbit.
The menu includes a whopping 252 dishes in 15 groupings, and, even with large groups of diners and three visits, we could only scratch the surface. The best dish was the long-winded “sauteed dried squid and dried shrimp with green and yellow chives” ($16.95), looking like a haystack set in a sunny field. Second place went to salt baked squid ($8.95), fresh baby creatures fried with cashews and thinly sliced jalapeños, not as spicy as it sounds. Fried chicken ($9 for a large half) is a restaurant specialty, rendered crisp, heaped with chopped scallions, and lapped with a featherweight garlic dipping sauce. Skip the Shanghai soup dumplings: thick-skinned, undersouped, and leaden, they’re clearly out of the restaurant’s territory. In fact, skip all the dumplings—the glory days of dim sum palaces like Golden Unicorn and Triple Eights can never be revisited.
But by all means order congee, slightly more delicate and gingery than Congee Village’s. The announced specialty is superb from the luxury bowl of lobster ($5.75), which really does contain a decent amount of crustacean, to the peasant grab-bag of sampan ($3.50), topped with roast salted peanuts like some baseball-stadium snack. This rice gruel, also known as jook, is a mainstay of Cantonese food. So ultimately, Congee represents the restoration of Cantonese food to its traditional Chinatown bastion, in a new, more versatile guise.