Chelsea on a breezy September night. A tiny, glimmering patio. There are tree branches dotted with pink blossoms reaching across a handful of tables, candles wrapped in brown paper, and couples talking over them softly. Two Chinese cooks come outside to adjust a sidelight, turning it off, then on again, getting it just so. Two Italian women pass an iPad back and forth in the near darkness, cooing over pictures of their beautiful, well-dressed children.
Chop Shop, the new restaurant from business partners Danny Emerman and Mah Chan of nearby Bottino, does just what its name implies. Like a garage that steals the parts it needs to get the job done, Chop Shop has cut-and-pasted an Asian menu for the Chelsea crowd—its loyalties do not lie with one region, or even one country. This means you’ll find a few Chinese comfort dishes alongside Thai noodle standards and Japanese-inspired vegetables. Chef Jason Li, who worked previously as a sous chef at Bottino, runs the kitchen.
Zha Jiang Mian ($12) is an endless, greasy kiss—long, stretchy wheat noodles in a sweet sauce of ground pork and brown bean paste. Shell-on salt-and-pepper shrimp ($13) are hot and light as they should be. The shells go down crisp and salty if you work at them a bit. If only they had their heads on! But never mind, the shrimp come with some smoky wok-tossed vegetables: slivers of sweet and hot peppers, a little bit of onion. A young chicken ($14) in a pool of gingery soy is elegantly quartered and cooked on point, though perhaps lacking in accessories—there’s nothing to swipe up that vinegary juice. Dumplings ($8) are good, with delicate skins, crackling brown bottoms, and fresh fillings of vegetables or pork and chives. Naturally, there are tender slabs of crowd-pleasing pork belly ($8) in two thick, airy steamed buns, assembled with a touch too much hoisin sauce and a smattering of crushed peanuts.
Other dishes are not so savory. A special of drunken noodles was stodgy and weakly flavored. Hungover in your pajamas, these are the kind of noodles you’d tuck into mindlessly during a marathon of TV shows, popping sad coils of shrimp like ibuprofen. But in a restaurant, out in the bright world, with your hair done and everything, don’t you deserve something a bit sharper and more complex than two-note delivery noodles? And I suspect no one is delighted by the flat short-rib curry ($16) with long beans, smothered with coconut milk and sweetness. Chop Shop’s tables may be full of diners, but even with this kind of noncommittal Asian fare, there is room for depth of flavor.
Meanwhile, a few improvements in service could make the experience a bit smoother. While many dishes are ideal for sharing, the fiddly share plates are minuscule, and never swapped out for new ones. This would be a kindness, especially after a saucy dish. It would also be great if Chop Shop didn’t join that reckless gang of kitchens sending your order out whenever, without a thought to where you are in the meal, what may or may not go together, or how much room is on your table. A side of fried Japanese eggplant ($10) we’d ordered to accompany the chicken arrived first on the scene, alone. Dumplings or shrimp would make a perfect greeting, but these come willy-nilly, whenever they are ready. Often, plates will not be cleared to make room unless you ask.
On another visit, the check came to my table still littered with plates, disposable chopsticks, their sleeves, and crumpled-up napkins. We left to get away from our own wreckage, wishing it had been replaced with a pot of tea. Chop Shop is a beautiful little place, sleekly designed with painted brick walls and black-wire Eames chairs, and inside it is lit exquisitely, so the diners at the marble bar appear to glow. It might have been a lovely place to linger.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.