Exiting the Knitting Factory one evening, I spotted it for the first time. Despite the late hour the place was jammed with ghostly figures only half-perceived through gauzy white curtains. I followed the windows to the corner and continued down Church Street before I discovered the anonymous entrance, discreetly stenciled with a pair of red numerals. Just inside, a trio of gorgeous Asian women who might have been fashion models posed beside the reservations podium. Brashly serving Chinese food only a few blocks west of Chinatown at three times the price, 66 is French chef Jean-George Vongerichten’s fifth project in the city. Rumors had been flying about staff raids on the best local Chinese joints; other scuttlebutt suggested he’d gone to Hong Kong to search for a chef. I called several times to make reservations, only to be told none were available in the foreseeable future, conveying the impression that 66 is the hottest ticket in town. But that evening I discovered it’s possible to sashay in between 10 and 11 on a weeknight and take your place immediately at the walk-in communal table.
As long as a fashion runway, this table was nearly full that first evening with odd hairstyles, many furtively smoking while they toyed with their dumplings. Although the service was excellent and the food sometimes exceptional, 66 seemed more dedicated to mystique than good eats. As our meal reached its strange and delectable climax of chile shrimp stir-fried with lily buds and sugarcoated walnuts ($22), Food and Wine founder Michael Batterbury crossed the room with his starched and carefully tonsured entourage, like a colonial governor visiting some remote Asian outpost.
A portion of the menu is devoted to Chinatown standards so unreconstructed you’ll suspect they were delivered by bicycle. The egg rolls ($7.50) are mainly stuffed with cabbage, the scallion pancakes ($6) have that rancid Mott Street flavor, and the pot stickers are identical to those served in the dollar stalls. By contrast, the Peking duck ($26) is the city’s best, the skin crisp and gloriously brown, the spring onions and cucumbers pristine and neatly stacked, and the bamboo steamer bulging with brown-spotted pancakes.
Other dishes are wild adventures. The extremely weird shrimp-and-foie gras dumplings ($6.50) are edible when dipped in their bitter grapefruit sauce, but the hideous “liquid chicken” dumplings dribble fluid that makes Campbell’s cream of chicken look chic. Also disappointing is 66’s take on dan dan noodles ($12), coyly called “tan tan” on the menu. Instead of the oily, spicy, meaty pasta you expect, the noodles swim in a Malay-style peanut sauce. At $12 for a small bowl, it’s one of the worst deals on the menu. Since this is a luxury establishment, I guess the very un-Chinesey tuna tartare ($12) was bound to make an appearance. Unexpectedly delicious, this version redeems itself with slender crunchy Chinese celery and little orbs of soy tapioca that are probably mistaken for caviar by many patrons.
I busied myself scouring the menu for other good deals. The shrimp fried rice ($16.50) is the menu’s foremost, a heaping platter of ungreasy rice with delicately carved vegetables and a handful of good-sized shrimp cooked just right. Also estimable are the garlic string beans and the eggplant cut like pale earthworms and plied with hot fishy XO sauce ($5.50 and $6.50, respectively). In fact, anything involving noodles, rice, or vegetables is a good bet. Ultimately, though, you can find most of this stuff or something close in Chinatown, so go for the scene and the sporadic flashes of culinary brilliance. Hell, I’d return just to feast my eyes on the staff—especially if a supermodel was paying.