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Early in November, the space that was previously Oscar’s American Brasserie, a power breakfast destination in the Waldorf Astoria, traded in its blonde woods and scrambled eggs and transformed into La Chine (540 Lexington Avenue; 212-872-4913). Now it’s decked out in plush velvet, crystal chandeliers, and plenty of dark panels. The upgrade also means that Sichuan chicken is served on fine china, announced by a French-accented waiter — and is sumptuously priced to match.
There’s serious talent behind the crew bringing this dusty Chinese concept to life; in fact, as a friend whispers during a recent visit, it’s like Shun Lee Palace for a more discerning crowd, the ones who’ve grown jaded from moo shu pork and lemon chicken.
It’s difficult to second guess David Garcelon, the Waldorf’s culinary director, when he makes the rounds and asks if that $26 Sichuan chicken has the right glaze and a pleasant chew, because it does. Or if the chicken broth bathing baby napa cabbage and shredded scallops ($15) is warm and comforting, because it is.
Garcelon brought in a top-notch team in the effort to bring La Chine’s vision to life, starting about four years ago when he hired Jereme Leung, a celebrity chef from China. Leung tapped his trusted comrade Kong Khai Meng to work his magic. Both Leung and Kong have clocked time at some of the best restaurants in Guangzhou, Taipei and Singapore, so there’s no questioning the authenticity of the food.
“We developed a concept based on the different regions in China,” Garcelon tells the Voice. “And we also looked at the competitive landscape here to see what would work.”
In fact, each dish is devoted specifically to the Chinese region from which it originates, though there might be a twist — like crispy fish, $19, a Shanghainese staple which Garcelon serves deboned, enclosed in a smoke-infused glass cloche. “That’s a dish we loved in Shanghai,” Garcelon recalls. “It was very good, but it was served on the bone.” Which is why Garcelon and the Chinese duo experimented with different varieties of fish before settling on a fatty mackerel with the bones removed.
A raw bar addition to the menu is a surprise; a first for a New York Chinese restaurant, although perhaps not so much in Wenzhou (in the Zhejiang province in China) where the bulk of their seafood is consumed with a ‘drunken’ marinade.
“There’s a special meaning to raw seafood there,” Garcleon says.
Inspired, Garcleon tapped Cherry’s executive sushi chef, Joshua Bedell, to develop a menu, which features rare Maine lobster tail with black bean sauce, Chinese radish and citrus soy ($24) and yellowtail with Sichaun pepper oil ($22). The yellowtail is fresh and assertively seasoned, but it seems no different from what Nobu Matsuhisa pushed New Yorkers to embrace over 20 years ago, with his now iconic hamachi and jalapeno dish.
Our advice is to go simple with other menu highlights: the soy-slicked Sichuan chicken, with cashews and fat lobes of onions, is braised until deeply flavorful and tender; fried-rice with crabmeat ($17) isn’t heavy-handed on the oil, and the flying fish roe woven in is wonderfully floral, while honey-glazed pork collar is luscious, sweet and fatty; it is, unsurprisingly, one of Garcelon’s must-tries.
The team began by deconstructing traditional char siu pork ingredients and replacing them with premium ones, like top-quality Berkshire pork marinated in a honey-based mixture — the honey was cultivated from the beehives on Waldorf’s rooftop garden. The finishing touch is liquid nitrogen, which cools the pork and gives the meat a brittle crust.
Desserts are limited but carefully curated, like a poached Bosc pear, with peach tree gum and dried longans ($15) which is herbaceous but not medicinal, and a dark chocolate and Sichuan peppercorn cake ($16), with molten sesame ganache and a ginger ice cream is rich and refreshing.