CheLi is designed to evoke a rural village in China.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
Lots of restaurants closed during the great plague year, of course, but lots of open as well. As most of us slept on our sofas in a Zoom-added stupor, the irrepressible spirit of the restaurant world bubbled endlessly just below the dark surface of things. The menus were composed; rented spaces; plans that had been made months, years, and even decades earlier were gradually moving forward. As dining sheds sprouted onto the sidewalks last summer, brick and mortar operations slowly began to open as well. They opened in empty hotel lobbies (Sacristy) and empty office towers (Pavilion). They’ve opened in Brooklyn (Xilonen, Francie) and different corners of the Bronx (Hudson Smokehouse), and now, as we wake up from our collective slumber, there are suddenly all kinds of new and unfamiliar places to try – many of them. seem to have fallen, fully formed, from the sky.
At least that’s what dawned on me a few weeks ago, when I wiped sleep from my eyes and wandered on a scorching summer evening trying to find a table in the new restaurant. Shanghainese. CheLi, which opened last fall amid the jumble of cafes and ramen shacks on St. Marks Place in the East Village. They couldn’t sit us down for a while, I was politely told, and as you walked around the buzzing room you could see why. Entire families – including beloved grandparents and babies in strollers – crowded around the tables. The owner, a group of restaurants called DaShan, built the space to resemble a quaint Chinese village, with carved wooden roofs and paper lanterns hanging from bamboo rafters. And with the exception of the very lively and knowledgeable waiters, most of the people in the room spoke Mandarin and even Shanghainese.
“This place is authentic, dad,” said one of my daughters, who is qualified to know, after making the trip from Shanghai to some of the famous “water towns” that stretch along the riverside. rivers and canals leading to the ancient imperial city. Hangzhou city, a place famous for its pagoda temples and vast lakes. This is the land of Hu-style cuisine of the Shanghai region, which, as any Shanghainese foodie will probably tell you, is a more subtle, sweeter, slightly more delicate version of the kind of cuisine you will find more in the area. north or in the fiery interior and in love with the pepper of the country. Specialties include dishes like xiao long bao (soup dumplings), freshwater eel and fish dishes, and everything related to local Shaoxing wine, many of which are faithfully reproduced here by the chef, Qiling Wang, who grew up outside of Shanghai, and his wife, Fang Fang, who talks about the restaurant’s excellent desserts.
We started with the perfectly steamed and perfectly weighted soup balls, of course, which you can get with an exotic infusion of black truffles but which worked best with the usual pork and crab stuffings. I could have eaten them all night, to be honest, but duty called us to move on to other appetizer creations, like the “triple crispy” pork and shallot balls with a crisp bottom (excellent) , small soybean strips lacquered with smoked fish (ditto), and a mound of rice topped with uni, which our server poured with a steaming pot of pu’erh tea. There were also delicious little stacks of sweet and sour chops and cockles soaked in copious amounts of chili oil, although nothing sums up the chef’s special sense of style quite like my crab order. wine-soaked Atlantic blue, which has been poached in Shaoxing wine like this delicate hairy crab from Shanghai and served cold on the plate with a scattering of flower petals.
Wang belongs to a new generation of city chefs who have grown up in the dynamic and evolving world of food and restaurants in China, where old familiar silos of regional cuisine are reworked in elaborate and innovative ways. Like my colleague Robert Sietsema highlighted, Wang has a habit of dousing his soups and stews with non-traditional, non-Chinese ingredients like uni mushrooms and morels, and if you ask for a serving of aromatic stewed pork belly, you’ll find it’s folded. , not unpleasantly, with small soft-shelled quail eggs the size of a marble. There are two varieties of Atlantic lobster on the menu (with a special garlic butter sauce and a “spicy” three-alarm version); tender, grassy and equally spicy Hunan beef; and diced chicken with mushrooms served in lettuce cups at the table with an unorthodox garnish of popped “crisp rice”.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of the menu here,” my daughter said, as we happily worked through these great dishes on our last visit to CheLi, and of course she was right. There were loads of crispy eels, more black truffle-flavored shrimp, crab stew mixed with a substance called “peach resin” and a $ 32 dish described somewhat menacingly as “the head of Qianlong’s favorite fish ”. However, Chef Fang Fang’s desserts can be tasted all at once, and if you are a fan of steamed buns, bowls of sweet congee, or small dumplings stuffed with black sesame or red dates, they are worth the effort. admission price. . All of these delicacies have their charms, but if you buy just one, make the large, pillow-sized Song Dynasty steamed bun, which is served with a honey dip and stamped with a red seal, as if it had just come out of a large imperial kitchen.