Have you been walking down St. Marks Place lately, the block between Second and Third Avenues? Since the beginning of the alfresco dining, it seems the noodle bar scene in “Blade Runner”, although the weather is generally better.
Tartan pants with a profusion of zips at Trash and Vaudeville decamped for another street a long time ago. No more lipsticks and hair dyes that manic panic stored in all colors not in the rainbow; Maximumrocknroll ink-stained numbers at Saint-Marc comics; the first pressings of Slits and Bad Brains hidden in the Sounds; and all the other post-punk era wrecks and jetsam. At that time, there was never much to eat on this strip other than the kebabs at Khyber Pass and the tofu hijiki burgers at Dojo. Everyone seemed to be feeding on the hairspray fumes and cigarettes.
Now the main draw of the block is Chinese and Japanese food sourced from tightly clustered and incredibly narrow storefronts. From Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, the block is closed to traffic, and people gulp down dumplings and noodles at the sidewalk and street tables. Most of the food is quite quick and decent, if not particularly memorable. About a year ago, however, above a Japanese creperie, a new place appeared that is not only the first very good restaurant in the area for at least three decades, but also one of the Chinese restaurants. the most impressive in the city.
Called CheLi, it specializes in cuisine from Shanghai and the surrounding Jiangnan region. Inside, the dining room looks like a small pre-revolutionary Chinese village, although a few walls have been removed, making it easy to access your table. Paper lanterns hang here and there. Installed on shelves above, at pitched roofs of superimposed curved tiles held by wooden poles, are clay containers of the type traditionally used to turn rice and other grains into wine.
The menu also has an antique look. Between cloth blankets tied with a rope, it is believed to be designed after a census record, one row per dish, with names in English and Chinese. It reports on some aspects of Jiangnan cuisine as performed by CheLi chef Wang Lin Qun, especially seafood cuisine from Yangtze River towns and the South China Sea coast. The flavors are sweet, sweet and almost transparent; you can taste the main ingredients just under the seasonings.
Shaoxing’s aromatic wine is reflected in many dishes; its sweetness, and that of an occasional pinch of sugar, is at least as important as soy sauce in this cuisine. Shaoxing is the wine of wine-soaked chicken, a paradigmatic dish from Shanghai, served in pale, cold white slices, each adorned with a goji berry. It reappears in the wine-soaked crab, but this time it has a caramelized sweetness that you squeeze along with the East Coast blue crabmeat from all its hiding places in the shell.
Either appetizer is as effective a way as any to prepare your palate for the rest of your meal at CheLi, although a strong case can be made for the smoked fish as well. We are far from the sturgeon sliced at Barney greengrass: The fish is actually fried, not smoked, then covered in an inky, dark brown glaze with soy, both sweet and sour but with the emphasis on sweetness. If you’re lucky you’ll have a few minutes to separate the fish from its bones, licking the sauce while looking for the smoke you never really tasted, before the kitchen sends everything you ordered. .
Despite the speed, the subtle contours of Mr. Wang’s kitchen rarely fade. Shaoxing invisibly seasons the long, pale green ribbons of warm loofah reminiscent of braised cucumbers. And Dragon Well green tea perfumes the Longjing shrimp which arrives in a whirlwind of dry snow mist. Their sweetness is contrasted with a tangy black vinegar dip similar to the one that accompanies xiao long bao.
At CheLi, the xiao long bao are not the gummy water balloons you sometimes come across. They are exemplary, in fact, the skins rolled up so thin that they drape like silk around the trims, which are about equally soft and solid.
Someone at the table is almost guaranteed to want xiao long bao, but don’t ignore the other dim sum. The Song Dynasty Steamed Bun is a low, unfilled dome the size of a whoopee cushion, stamped with the restaurant’s name in red Chinese characters; it is all natural and quite pleasant, on its own or dipped in its syrupy sauce. Sticky rice pancakes wrapped around crushed peanuts and brown sugar appear pierced at the end of wooden picks that are held in a flower vase with a sprig of baby’s breath. These are chewy and crunchy little delicacies, even though they look like they’ve been delivered by Edible Arrangements.
As the dishes get bigger, their intensity also increases. Simmered tofu with peas and carrots feels like a nap, but gushes into a broth of unexpected depth. Crab threads weave their way into a layered and deeply flavorful stew, thickened and colored pink-orange by dried peach sap; small clumps of fluffy resin hang in the broth like free-form gummy candies.
CheLi serves red-braised pork belly in its Shanghainese version, still rich and sticky with some caramel but less spicy than what you’ll find in a Hunan restaurant.
When fresh or dried chili peppers appear, they are used as accents, not as Sichuan or Hunanese style sea pomegranates. Even the angry red layer of pure chili oil on mao xue wang – a stew that unites ham, beef, and shrimp with frilly lengths of gut and triangular squares of thickened duck blood – is more sober than it would be in Sichuan cuisine.
Casino-sized cubes of fried tofu are rolled in a blend of spices that quietly suggests the warm, numbing mala effect. Linguine-like crispy gut strands called jade chunks are dressed in a spicy chimichurri that hits sharply but doesn’t go for an off punch. Fresh green and red chili peppers are mixed with a handful of sesame seeds on a fish head large enough to feed a family, but the taste you remember is just the slight heat that comes from the deep, hypnotic, sweet broth. and salty. The dish, named after an 18th-century emperor, is called Qianlong’s Favorite Fish Head. It’s mine too.
The desserts are supervised by Fang Fang, the pastry chef. Meiling congee, rice cooked porridge with sweet white yams and fresh soy milk, is among other treats. Along with her husband, Mr. Wang, Ms. Fang is busy opening a second CheLi branch in the same small plaza in downtown Flushing, Queens, where you can find the original. Sichuan mountain house fight for supremacy in all of Sichuan City with the mighty Guan Fu.
There is, of course, more Shaoxing wine to drink, including a barrel aged variety made by Shikumen that tastes of almond cocktail. It goes remarkably well by alternating sips with Dragon Well tea that the servers refresh throughout the meal. After a glass or two of wine, it seems unlikely that this space once housed Andy Warhol’s plastic explosion is inevitable, with its strobe lights and films projected on the walls while the house band, the Velvet Underground, sang on the needles and the whips. Or maybe it just makes sense. Another decanter from Shaoxing will surely clear things up.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.