Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pan Asian & Sichuan cuisine – two restos for a crowded weekend in NYC

Amidst the activities of the PEN Festival last week (and weekend) and an SOB concert in Brooklyn Heights this past Saturday evening, we managed to squeeze in visits to a couple of Asian restos, both in the Chelsea area (in Manhattan) and not a long walk from The New School).  Although there are many restaurants of all “persuasions” (including several Asian) to explore – up and down Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, we decided to remain in Manhattan for dinner twice, Saturday evening, and Sunday, late afternoon.

While we’ve eaten on several occasions at Alpha Fusion’s mid-town, 34th St. (between 8th & 9th Ave.) location and enjoyed the food immensely (they have a very nice and relatively extensive 3-course prix fixe dinner for under $25.), on this occasion, however, we simply came upon the 8th Ave. branch of Alpha Fusion (between 18th & 19th St.) while walking in and around Chelsea seeking out interesting Asian menus. The resto – at both locations – specializes in Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and “fusion” cuisine, truly Pan Asian ... very friendly and very tasty, indeed!

We chose the Thai crispy crab cakes with pineapple salsa (@ $8.50) from a lengthy list of appetizers (or “Kitchen Starters”); the crab cakes proved nicely browned, crumbly & crunchy on the outside, but a bit bland and stringy inside (not up to their usually high culinary standard, or so we thought).   For mains (found under the generic head, “Wok & Grill”), we ordered the wok-grilled steak tenderloin with potato cake in a red, wine-infused brown sauce (@ 18.). The dish was exquisite, the steak tenderloin tender & succulent, and with just a bit of charred flavor exposed on the outside; the brown sauce – more intricate and piquant than it sounds – a lovely addition to the whole plate, generally, and to the steak in particular.  (This, for me, is an outstanding and memorable steak tenderloin dish, or so it is proving to me to be, even as I think about it now.)  The second dish we selected (from the “Starters” section) was the wok-grilled chicken, accompanied by a Thai lettuce salad, diced onions, jicama, pineapple, mango, bell pepper & crushed walnut, a very generous portion, indeed, filled with lots of thick, thoroughly grilled chicken strips at a mere $8.50, the portion.

I should also note that the resto, at both locations, offers a late-afternoon/early-evening Happy Hour during which drinks can be bought at reduced prices – there are, for example, wines by the glass, and a variety of imported, premium draft & bottle beers, Stella included, at $4.or 5.

Legend, Bar & Restaurant, at 88 7th Ave. (near 15th St.), is one of a handful of restos that The New York Times has dubbed among the very best Sichuan spots in The City, outside Chinatown. The resto is, visually, an attractive, moderately upscale Asian establishment (clearly not of your typical, pedestrian Chinatown ilk), with minimalist but inviting atmosphere, shiny tables & cloth napkins, dining on two floors, carefully maintained wood floors, and a small, spiffy bar up front. The food is extremely well-prepared and the menu is extensive, a list whose surface we merely just began to scratch. The pork pan-fried dumplings were perfectly done, delicately crispy, and, doused with a spoonful or two of their mellow & gingery dumpling sauce, practically melted (yep!) in your mouth. The hot & sour soup, nicely spiced, sufficiently sour, savoury, and among the better versions of this standard soup I have eaten.  Finally, having examined the large menu in some detail – and The Times list of “recommended dishes” – we chose the Chengdu prawns, in a lovely, balanced (not terribly spicy) sauce, along with sautéed asparagus, and bowls of white and brown rice. 

Two critical points about the dish of Chengdu prawns:  (1) the sauce was not in sufficient abundance (we should have asked for more!); and (2) the prawns were a little overcooked, as if they had been sautéed earlier that afternoon and not cooked to order.  Still, we enjoyed the food and the ambiance, overall, and are intrigued by numerous items on the menu – from the grilled crispy whole fish with pine nuts in sweet & sour sauce … to the Chengdu braised duck; the sliced pork sautéed with garlic stems; the grilled rack of lamb with dill, lemongrass, string-bean mushroom salad, and tamarind sauce; and lots of other “New Style” Sichuan concoctions.

Alas, we shall return to both of these Chelsea establishments for further exploration

A quick note:  If you live in northern New Jersey (Montclair, Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove, or environs), you need to give Chengdu1 a try (eat in or take out) for “authentic” Szechuan cuisine!  Located in Cedar Grove (the Pilgrim Shopping Plaza, @ 89 Pompton Ave.), they simply offer a complete menu of all sorts of typical and “special” Szechuan (no matter how you spell it!) items from soups to classic dishes, such as sesame shrimp, sizzling chicken with ginger & scallions, beef in “western Szechuan” sauce, and a fish fillet with scallion sauce.  Additionally, their pan-fried dumplings are characteristically top-notch, and their vegetarian items superb (just sample the asparagus with ginger sauce). You will surely enjoy this local Essex County eatery … take my word for it & take notice!

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