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On the Menu: Chinese Food with Fancy Prices

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the USA

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 27 and 28

With Alain Ducasse serving diners French food costing more than two hundred dollars per person, is expensive Chinese food far behind? Depending upon your perspective, excessive Chinese food prices may not approach this, but what about currently available overpriced Chinese food? Is there some in your neighborhood? Readers have asked us to check out a few places in New York City. They believe the costs excessive and wonder what we thought of the places in New York City, and their prices.

TSE YANG at 34 East 51st Street, New York City; phone: 212 688-5447 was one of them. Several readers believe this Manhattan food is already in the excess dollar department now.

AU MANDARIN at 200-250 Vesey Street, New York City; phone: 212 385-0313 in Manhattan's Financial Center was another others wondered what we thought of.

Like the Ducasse restaurant, these are branches of restaurants long in existence in other countries. Readers found them pretentious and overpriced. Did we think them worth noting. Both of these Chinese restaurants have branches in Paris. Au Mandarin has another in Frankfurt, Germany. While a trip down the Champs Elysees would be fun, as there are but a few readers in France or Germany, we checked only those in the Big Apple. A respected colleague did eat at the Au Mandarin in Paris and agreed with the findings detailed below.

What makes restaurants such as Tse Yang or Au Mandarin so expensive, even exclusive? The usual restaurant reviewer’s response is that prices match fine service. Visits to these places dressed in our finest, reservations made in advance, brought a different view. In both, the staff was condescending at best. Their prices coverered rent, fancy fixtures, and perhaps a good portion of someone’s air fare, unfortunately not ours. And yes, a fine chef does need fine compensation, but were these expensive restaurants worth their price?

Au Mandarin, a dozen years in New York City does have many expensive dishes. People gather there even though Chinatown is but a short cab ride away. What do they and what did we get for the money? We found little food and little service. For thirty dollars each including tip, tax, and but one ‘tipple’ or drink a piece, four of us on two separate occasions ate while viewing the interior of the Financial Center building. We heard noises from other diners not just in this restaurant but also from other eateries. We watched hoards of people wandering just a few feet away–within touching distance. And we did not enjoy the sometimes surly service. We attributed it to our refusal to order mineral water. We asked for plain tap water as New York City does boast award-winning water.

So why do these expensive institutions survive? Is it because several of the diners are known and greeted by name? Is it because location has cache? Or is it because indifference or lack of knowledge about good Chinese food is the rule and not the exception? Certainly such a place in a large Chinese enclave would never make payroll.

Hal Rubenstein in the October 23, 2000 issue of New York Magazine spoke of another golden oldie, one almost as expensive as the two already mentioned. Called Mr. Chow, he called it an eighties stalwart back in style and none the better for it. 'Young’uns,' he called their clientele, unimpressed he was with the food. We did not review it at this time as some months ago we, too, were disappointed, and not anxious to return. The patrons we saw at Tse Yang and Au Mandarin were young, old, and in between. They did not seem to care about prices, quantity of food served, or quality.

A recent experience at Tse Yang showed serious inattention to detail. We called for a reservation, were put on hold, and were treated to a radio advertisement for Jet Blue, a discount airline. Waiting almost ten minutes, we were also treated to dishes clanging as the radio touted a ticket to a city several hundred miles away for forty-nine dollars. That price was about half of what our per person bill was some weeks later when we did dine here. Even the food at a later lunch cost more per person than the touted ticket; each of them was sixty dollars. Both meals were tasty but no better than most restaurants in Chinatown. In addition to food quality, the presentations were simplistic, as were the dishes.

On one occasion, three of us shared two appetizers, three main courses, three desserts, and lots of jasmine tea. The food was simple and appropriate but not satisfying. As to the tea then or on other occasions, jasmine may have been the name of the lady at the front desk. Our tea had no aroma and nary a petal nor leaf to titillate our collective taste buds. Served in a lovely cup with saucer, it was brewed in the kitchen, had a metallic sitting-in-an-urn taste, and probably was brewed in one. Speaking of flowers, those on our table were carnations in a lovely vase. Must report that the only value enjoyed was wine by the glass, six dollars each glass of Chateux St. Michelle Merlot was quite reasonable.

At Au Mandarin, the food was less pricey at dinner. A complete meal, called a banquet for eight, includes a five-item Cold Platter, Minced Scallops in Lettuce, Crab Meat Bisque (yes, that name but nary a drop of dairy in it), West Lake Prawns, Twin Delights (of chicken), Yang Chow Fried Rice, and Sorbet or Ice Cream, and tea. That Shanghai-style banquet cost thirty-five dollars each before tax or tip, without wine or beer or another alcoholic beverage.

We ordered the banquet called Beijing-style; it was ten dollars more per person and we were served Soft-shelled Crab in Peppery Seasoning, Pan-Seared Dumplings, Shark Fin Soup, Beijing Duck, Grey Sole Filet, Silver Needle Noodles with Julienned Duck, Toffee Apples, and lots of tea in a pair of chipped ceramic pots. The food was as good as at many Chinatown eateries, but it needed a shot in the wok. While some were tasty, the fish was overcooked, the dumplings far from delicate, the duck missed a crispy crust, and some items needed more seasoning, including salt and pepper.

A DISH OF SALT is at 133 West 47th Street; New York City; phone: 212 921-4242 Not all fancy-priced places have all of these problems. is another up-scale eatery; this one calls itself 'the utmost in elegant fine Chinese dining.' It needed some of its namesake, but the staff was wonderful. This twenty-plus year restaurant in the theater district is not as high-priced, though almost, as the other two, and it does offer decent, sometimes fine service, even to the unknown. No surly staff here. Mary Ann Lum greets you at the door with enthusiasm, and the large culinary staff exudes some of the same. She proudly advises the food as good as ever because the kitchen has almost every original employee. Not so the waiters, but she keeps an eye on them and on every table, and that helps. Quality is apparent in the sophisticated food without pandering to trendy dishes. Classic Cantonese is their motto, and the finger-sized pieces of filet in the succulent Spicy Orange Steak shows it off.

A dozen appetizers on the menu brought back memories, some good, others we would rather not recall. The Spinach with Crabmeat was spectacular. The Seafood Dumplings were filled with pleasure, but their dough had memories better forgotten. The Fried Coconut Prawns came with a super curry sauce fondly reminding of Macao; the shrimp, however, tasted as though they came on a super slow boat. Prices for these and several main dishes were a mite steep ranging from seventeen-fifty to twenty-five dollars each. The Peking Duck here costs more than double that amount. Also high priced was tea, but selections were many. There was a fair Jasmine, ordinary oolong, and Chrysanthemum, and Earl Grey, which we did not taste; each was two-fifty per person, no matter how much was consumed. They also had Coffee, Espresso, and Cappuccino available, but they cost more.

Overall, we agree with readers who spoke less than lovingly about expensive Chinese eateries. We say to all chefs: Heed them, they are your customers. Expensive menus in expensive surroundings that mean high prices with poor service is a big no-no! Patrons are willing to pay for superior food, however, as our experiences attest, most of the time the extra cost meant money not well spent. At any price why pay for surly waiters, chipped dishes, and shrimp sporting black veins, among other things. These are but a few of the annoyances we and readers who wrote want to do without.

A pair of final comments. The first is that we promise not to return to these or other overpriced places. The second is that never again will we call attention to them unless we hear of major improvements. Any decent emperor would declare that both owners and chefs need to heed an: 'Off with their heads' while going to them; that, or people need to be out of theirs.

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