Cafe China – Michelin must be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of stars behind

First I would like to apologize for the horribly blurry pictures. 7 people were crammed around a rickety square table that was much too high for anything other than building legos. I didn’t want to try to stand up every few minutes and knock over everything from water to lamps. Can’t say that the ambiance wasn’t authentic!

Some of our party wanted to have some authentic Chinese food, and Michelin just recently honored Cafe China with 1 star. It’s closer to the center of the city than most Chinese restaurants, so why not?

The walls (and the website) are covered with pictures of Shanghai girls. The menu, however, clearly had a strong Sichuan influence. Confusion.

In any case, we ordered a wide variety of dishes.

Scallion pancakes: 9.5/10: Flakey layers with just the right amount of scallions. I am definitely not there yet with my own pancakes.

Five spice beef: 7.5/10: A little too tough and under spiced.

“Husband and Wife Special” which is just beef tendons in chili sauce. 10/10: We didn’t tell people what it was made of, and it was one of the most popular dishes of the night! It was thinly sliced, tender, and the chili oil was delicious.

Dumplings: I didn’t eat any. I was disappointed in the plating. It’s something that’s so easy to make pretty, why pile it into a bowl? I plate my dinners better than this.

Xiao long bao: 8/10 Shanghainese pork dumplings that are filled with soup. The flavor was good and I liked that it wasn’t fatty, but there wasn’t enough soup. They were also cooked too close together and nearly ripped. It was steamed on paper (which sticks and tears the dumpling!!), instead of cabbage. We also didn’t get tongs to pick them up.

Spicy wonton: 5/10 mediocre wontons, mediocre chili oil.

Ma Po Tofu: 2/10. Come on. 1: no ground meat. okay maybe we’re trying to be vegetarian friendly, so I let this one slide. 2: Overcooked firm tofu – unforgivable. 3: Not enough Sichuan spice. If I don’t feel the heat or the numbness, then we must not be eating mapo tofu. End of story.

Cumin Lamb: 8/10 It was rather delicious. The lamb was thinly sliced and caked with cumin. The serving size was a little small, and we got more dried peppers than lamb. It was almost just as good as the lamb skewers from the cart on the street in Queens. That was a compliment (for those of you who have never visited the cart).

Sliced pork with garlic sauce: 4/10 I’ve had more versions of this dish than any other dish in Chinese cuisine. The Chinese name, by the way, is “sliced pork in FISH sauce”. It’s so classic that you can usually order it even when it’s not on the menu. It was below average.

Fried rice. I didn’t eat it. I didn’t need to taste it to see that they hardly added anything other than scallions. I think I see egg, but who knows. 3/10.

Sweet and sour spare ribs 7/10: They didn’t say that it was red cooked, and then it was red cooked, so I got a little confused. It was very tender and yummy. But it was red cooked, and therefore sweet and salty, not sweet and sour.

Fish slices 6/10: Another benchmark dish for me. This is just to see how good restaurants are at flavoring delicate dishes, and how fresh their fish is. The fish is fresh, the flavoring is lacking.

Three pepper chicken: 8/10: 3rd properly spiced dish I had after the husband and wife special and the cumin lamb. The heat was truly fun to eat. The dried chilis clung onto that chicken like white on rice. It was very good. But the chicken dried out.

Overall, it was a good meal with great company, and a fun variety of foods. The waiters seemed disinterested, which was a little sad. They looked like hipsters and could have been a little more fun. I hear the Tsingdao beer there is sour tasting, which sounds disturbing.

…and now my rant:

Michelin gave Cafe China 1 star. They must have thought that the benchmark for Chinese food is Panda Express. Allow me to explain. In my silly head, 1 Michelin star as something great that you cannot easily find, and the combination of food, service, and decor, is a cut above the rest. There should at least be some innovation or special ingredients that put a spin on old dishes. 2 stars is supposed to be an *experience*, and 3 stars is supposed to be a *revelation*.

So Michelin, why did you choose to give this Chinese restaurant of all Chinese restaurants a star? Have you not had the husband and wife special and spicy wontons at Taiwan Cafe on a dirty street corner of Boston Chinatown? Or all the Sichuan dishes at Wu Liang Ye/Grand Sichuan/Ollies in New York, where the good dishes taste the same, and some dishes such as Ma Po Tofu is incomparably better? Does plating not matter? Because I’m looking at the other 1 Michelin star restaurants on your list, and their plating is beautiful. Does this mean that you will give Lao Si Chuan in Chicago 3 stars? Give me a farking break, Michelin. Go to China and learn about the food.

If Cafe China deserves one star, then the streets of China should be littered with stars.

Leave a Reply