“I don’t think these stir fries are really stir-fried,” observed my companion. “I think they were assembled from pre-cooked ingredients just prior to serving.” True or not, that would account for the absolute lack of flavor in “three chili chicken” ($17), which arrived lukewarm. The glistening heap lay atop one of those pedestalled stainless-steel serving platters you often find in Chinese restaurants, and there were indeed three dried red chiles lurking in the perfectly diced poultry, along with peanuts and a few threads of green onion. Underseasoned was an understatement—you could have pulled a skinless Perdue chicken breast from the freezer and poached it without salt or pepper and gotten more flavor out of it.
Chinatown Brasserie is a restaurant for people who are afraid of Chinatown, and afraid of flavor too. It occupies the space that was once the Time Café, only the mighty room looks bigger and more luxurious, arranged on two levels furnished with intricately carved furniture, looming red-and-white lanterns, and undulating banquettes. The grandiose and dwarfing decor makes you feel like a small kid in the company of your parents in a Chinatown restaurant circa 1975. Taking Ruby Foo’s as its inspiration, Chinatown Brasserie is a theme-park rendition of a remote memory of Chinatown’s past.
On a folio-size page covered with boxes, the menu skittishly jumps from Cantonese classics to BBQ to dumplings to wraps to soups to salads to dishes that show Southeast Asian and cooking-school influences. Predictably, the menu is short on traditional bargain feeds of noodles and fried rice, but there is an extensive list of dim sum, with prices that average two to three times what you’d expect to pay at your usual Chinatown restaurant. As an extreme example, four pork pot stickers cost $8, compared to five for $1 at a dumpling stall a half-mile to the southeast. Some of the dim sum is quite good, including pork shui mai with a pristine shrimp poised on the top of each one, though the Shanghai soup dumplings were shriveled and low on gravy compared to their Chinatown counterparts.
I guess it’s annoying that mu shu pork has been rechristened as a “wrap,” but the heap of shredded pork comes topped with a pleasantly bland omelet attended by a saucer of hoisin. Not bad. Other things that I didn’t hate included a waterchestnut, tofu, and multi-mushroom salad ($11) dressed with balsamic, though it wasn’t very Chinese. On the other hand, there were plenty of perfectly awful things, including a version of General Tso’s chicken so sodden and sweet, I was tempted to flag down a diabetic and borrow some insulin. Sugar is a problem several places on the menu.
All bets are off at the top end of the menu. One evening in quick succession I ate Peking duck at Chinatown’s Peking Duck House ($38) and then at Chinatown Brasserie ($48). While the Brasserie’s duck was somewhat smaller, and the fat had been stripped away, the bronzed skin was supremely crunchy, and the flesh dark and fragrant. Peking Duck House’s rendition came with a superior sauce, and a dozen giant pancakes, while Chinatown Brasserie offered 10 tiny pancakes, allowing the dish to feed two, rather than three or four. Oh, and the Chinatown version included the neck and head too, fiendishly grinning.