By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 12, 2007
I’ve visited six continents and 23 countries trying to find the world’s top Chinese restaurants outside of China. Wakiya in New York is not one of them (though it is priced as though it were). This is all the more sad because the original Wakiya restaurant in Tokyo is truly one of the most intriguing and memorable Chinese dining experiences I have ever had. If anyone is ever passing through Tokyo, I recommend stopping by for their lunch tasting menus. While not cheap, they are a bargain really worth every yen. (Also, the yen is on a downward slide against the dollar right now, one of the few currencies that we’re gaining ground against).
So the befuddling question is: with such a pedigree — the management team behind Nobu, one of the top Chinese celebrity chefs in the world, an entrepreneur whose created the high-service boutique hotel — what went wrong?
(I’m going to cut slack for service and reservation issues — they had my reservation for the wrong Friday, so we had to sit at the lounge — because those things get smoothed out over time).
Instead I am going to ponder the menu.
A long time ago, when I had to write my first book review, I angsted about how to judge a book (“It’s so subjective!” I moaned). The best piece of advice my editor gave me then is to understand what the creator (author, writer, painter, filmmaker, chef) trying to do, and whether or not they achieve that goal.
This is what the restaurant Web site says: Wakiya “offers a new style of Chinese cooking inspired by the traditional food of Shanghai, Szechuan, Canton and Beijing. Currently not available in America, this new genre of Chinese cuisine is rich in imagination and dynamically presented through the eyes of chef, Yuji Wakiya. In fact, the food is so delicately and beautifully presented itâ€™s as if it is painted on the plate!”
Well. This is not true. The style of cooking is not that new, and where it is, it is not that rich in imagination. There are elements of individual dishes which present pleasant surprises (the “golden sand” being one of them — panko bread crumbs and chili spice), but truth be told Wakiya does best when it cleaves to old Chinese classics (Peking duck, bang bang chicken), and there are which are presented pretty well (the cucumber slices in the pork belly were artfully presented in an airy ball). But I feel you can get the Chinese classics for a third of the price elsewhere in the city, though perhaps not with the sultry red-and-black decor. But you can get over-the-top decor with better food (not necessarily Chinese) for less money at many restaurants in the city.
I was trying to figure out what was off about the menu when a stray piece of broccoli caught my attention. Then I realized: this is a French-trained Japanese chef driving much of his high-end menu through the lens of American Chinese food. Among the authentic dishes, the menu is full of stereotypes of American Chinese food gone horribly awry on fancy leaf-shaped white plates.
There was broccoli, sweet and sour (disguised as the name tong tsu on the menu), even random cauliflower, deep-fried stuff, fried rice (in an omlette), fried noodles, egg rolls, dumplings (of all sorts). To be fair, this is all mixed in with some of the more authentic Chinese dishes.
Broccoli appears all over the place: as garnishes, mixed in with the dishes. Broccoli is a Western vegetable (originally from Italy). But there is no beef with broccoli in China. It is Americans who love broccoli. Chinese do not embrace broccoli. They Chinese have their own version of broccoli (called Chinese broccoli, looks kinda like broccoli rabe). In fact China is importing broccoli from California nowadays because it is the Americans who have figured out how to genetically engineer stalkless broccoli (the agricultural equivalent of muffin tops). I kept on encountering random bits of gratuitous broccoli in my dishes (why?).
Then there was a lot of deep-frying, sweetness going on — the sweet and sour Chilean sea bass for example. The lobster in the fiery pepper hunt was also breaded and deepfried (if you were generous, you would call what they did to it tempura’ed).
The fried rice, fried noodles, dumplings and spring rolls seemed unappealing to me, so we passed on those — but we did get the dan dan noodles.
In general, the cold dishes came off well (as there are few cold dishes in American Chinese cooking, so there was less of an American Chinese cooking influence in evidence here).
I’m trying to figure out who the restaurant is for.
It is also not for Chinese people. Here is a checklist for a restaurant for Chinese people 1) Is there Chinese writing on the menu? (no). 2) Do they have chopsticks? (yes). 3) Do the servers speak Chinese? (no). 4) Do they charge for rice? (yes). My mom would have a heart attack paying that much for a Chinese meal that did not involve shark pin, bird’s nest or sea cucumber.
It’s not for people who like authentic Chinese dives as bargains. Because the bill (which without drinks will easily run $75 a person with tax and tip). So it’s not for the “let’s eat what Chinese people eat” crowd since there are few Chinese faces there.
It’s not really going to be satisfying for the gourmand — because the food really isn’t that inventive or creative or novel.
It’s not even really for the Sex and the City crowd which likes to think of itself as “in the know” for food/restaurants. Because it’s doesn’t have that kind of energy of Tao and Buddakan, which to their credit don’t take themselves too seriously (chocolate cream-stuffed giant fortune cookes and Genreal Tso’s dumplings?). But Wakiya does take itself seriously, which is why it is all the more depressing.
One area which I found more interesting: the desserts. Good and inventive (no fortune cookies in sight though).
The menu at Wakiya reminded me of the early Japanese of hip-hop. It was really interesting to see this uber-developed industrial economy embrace the urban ghetto aesthetic. Despite baggy clothes, the bling, backwards baseball caps, there is just something off about it. (As one record store manager observed, “Before they used to copy American gangster rap singing about guns and violence, which there isn’t too much of in Japan“). Over time, it has transitioned to being more Japanese, and thus exploded in its own art form in its right.
So maybe Wakiya should have tried doing what has worked so well — Japanese Chinese food. Not a Japanese interpretation of American Chinese food.
I’m all for modern Chinese. I think the cuisine could use some updating on the global stage. There are a number of restaurants around the world that pull this off. Among them Wakiya in Tokyo, Zheng He in Dubai, Hakkasan in London, Billy Kwong in London, Zen Fine Dining in Vancouver, and in Singapore — Xi Yan, My Humble House and Majestic. Wakiya NYC isn’t one of them.
Below, you will find some commentary on the evening. Peking duck, one of the few highlights of the evening. Came with scallion whites (?) instead of the more typical green part of the scallion. Four pancakes. Recommended. Though you could get similar quality for 1/4th the price elsewhere in the city. Original versions of the dish, according to early reviews, did not include the duck — just the skin. People must have reacted negatively to that.
Pork Belly with chili soy. Don’t be turned off by the “belly” in the name. Pork belly is a classic Chinese dish. This cold dish was pretty good, but then as I took a bite of the cucumber, my friend looked at me and said “What’s wrong?”
“I just bit into ice crystal,” I said. “I think the cucumber had been frozen.”
Soft shell crab with golden sand. The Chinese love their crab. They will eat it even if it’s not softshelled. This dish was pretty good. The “golden sand” seemed to be some kind of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) + spicyness. I was intrigued by the golden sand, but what’s with the gratuitous broccoli?
Tong Tsu Sea Bass. Tong Tsu is ç³–é†‹, which is actually just sugar-vinegar, or the Chineses pronounciation of “sweet and sour.” This is basically “sweet and sour sea bass,” which was perhaps innovative in the 1970s?
Smoked lamb with Black Bean Sauce (done rare). I’m not quite sure what is “Chinese” about this (the black bean sauce, it seems like). It looks more like something you would get at Emiril’s — with the lamb and the asparagus and the potato frites. Waiter recommended that we get it rare — though it was probably too rare for our taste (Chinese palates don’t really like rare meat). We didn’t finish the dish. Note the broccoli (and asparagus)?
My very very expensive bowl of rice
Tan Tan Noodles (sometimes called Dan Dan noodles), a spicy Sichuanese dish which is supposed to have a punch. But I’m not sure this version pulled off the spicy here. Tiny bowl $8.
Fiery Pepper Lobster Hunt. (My words made be out of order in that dish name). This is an adaptation of a famed Sichuanese dish where the food you want to eat is buried within the pile of hot red peppers (which the waiter kindly explains are not to be eaten) It comes in chicken and scallop versions too. The lobster was breaded and deep fried — and shell-less (the version in Japan comes with shells). Seven pieces of lobster total.
Vietnamese Coffee Crunch with Condensed-Milk Ice Cream. This was actually pretty good. Though at $14 for a pretty small dessert, it came to about $1 per bite.
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