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The name is the first hint that there’s something funny about Chinatown Brasserie: It’s not in Chinatown. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that, since it doesn’t offer beer on tap, the new restaurant isn’t exactly a brasserie either.
That’s not to say it’s incomplete. The menu offers a sizeable synopsis of Chinese food, from egg rolls to Peking duck, with efforts to accommodate everyone except perhaps the rigid purist or the bargain hunter. The airy space that was Time Cafe has been expensively converted into a carnival of colorful chinoiserie: lanterns, silks, even a koi pool in the basement lounge. But unlike New York’s vernacular Chinese restaurants, which sit comfortably in their urbane surroundings, this slick, insubstantial restaurant could be anywhere.
Under the heading “Classics” come the baseline dishes of American Chinese food: beef with broccoli ($18), General Tso’s chicken ($17), orange beef ($19). Chef Tyson Wong Ophaso doesn’t put them through Pygmalionesque revisions; with the exception of a few nice garnishes and an upgrading of the meat, these could come from a decent corner takeout.The egg roll ($6), though, is well above the takeout standard, with a thick, tooth-resisting shell that’s fried to a mahogany brown, free of grease, and tightly packed with flavorful mushrooms and shrimp.
The dish known as “dry sautéed string beans” is different too, but not necessarily improved.Traditionally the beans are shriveled in very hot oil before sautéing, which helps them absorb spicy flavor; these ($11) arrive at the table plump, fresh, and rather Americanized, seasoned with ground pork and black beans but not as deep-flavored as their classic Sichuan cousins. The restaurant does an estimable rendition of Chinese red-glazed barbecue, but for some reason the expected pork spareribs are left out of the options. Sliced pork tenderloin ($12) makes a poor substitute: The sticky-sweet roasted exterior is there, but the meat is insipid. Beef ribs ($14) do a better job of meeting that urge to gnaw, with a savory chew beneath the glaze.
The $48 Peking duck, which has pride of place in a box at the top of the menu, is enough bird for two or three people, even though it doesn’t include the customary duck-bone soup course. The basted, roasted skin is admirably taut and fatty, and keeps much of its crispness as it cools. Meat is always a secondary concern in this dish, but these dark, moist morsels hold up their end of the meal neatly.
Mr. Ophaso does justice to a difficult job, but the best food at Chinatown is the handiwork of Joe Ng, the chef in charge of dim sum. It’s worth coming by at lunch, when a greater selection is offered, and making a meal of Mr. Ng’s specialty, but the 20 dinnertime offerings show what he can do. He works in contrasts, filling fluffy, pale steamed buns with sweetly succulent roast pork ($8), and enlivening blandly earthy turnip cakes with spicy, shrimpy XO sauce ($6). The novelties stand out as much as the more familiar dishes do. Fried dumplings, of shrimp or pork ($8), are among the best I’ve had anywhere; scallops layered on top of shrimp on top of fried tofu cubes, in delicate little towers ($12), are less familiar but just as delicious. Mr. Ng’s soup dumplings ($8), dry on the outside but bursting in the mouth with a gush of soup, also compare excellently with other restaurants’ versions; but another dish, called “king of soup dumpling” ($12) and placed tellingly outside the menu’s dim sum rubric, is ill-conceived.The thrill of soup dumplings is their liquid explosion, but this fist-sized king rules from the bottom of a bowl of broth; any effort to scoop him out disintegrates him and leaves his contents in the bowl. Optimistically, this dish comes with a vinegar dipping sauce, but dipping a soup into a sauce is well beyond my eating skill.
Desserts are surprisingly untheatrical, given the environment.There’s a decent warm chocolate cake ($9), a classic hot fudge sundae ($8), and, as a sop to us novelty-hounds, a semi-sweet rhubarb custard ($9) topped with appealingly contrasting dice of celery.
The restaurant packs a lot in, but its shortcomings make themselves felt. My quibble in the first paragraph isn’t just a semantic one: The salty, multi-layered flavors here cry out for tall, crisp beers to wash them down. Heedless to that cry, the proprietors give prominence to higher-class, higher-margin beverages — a 100-bottle wine list and $12 cocktails like a slushy purple mai tai — ignoring what might actually suit a Peking duck or a fried dumpling. A glance among the tables found more bottled Tsingtao ($6), Amstel ($6), and Hitachino ($8) than wine.
Creating a glossy, Chinatown-themed restaurant, if it conveys even a little of the excitement of Chinese cuisine, is a fine objective. With so much compromise in the execution, though, placing it just half a dozen blocks from the wonders of the real Chinatown — at twice the price — is a puzzlingly poor choice.
Chinatown Brasserie, 380 Lafayette St. at Great Jones Street, 212-533-7000.