Friday, March 23, year of our lord 2012. The weather had been pristine, but as night set in a chill arrived from the north. I place my helmut firmly on my head and ride off into the sunset, on my way to what would prove to be one of the finest Chinese meals I've ever had. Of course, as I rode off into the purple of the setting star, I didn't know that such a wonderful meal awaited me. Nor did I know that I was about to crash into an old woman. She'll be all right...eventually.
Cafe China. The place is delightful from an aesthetic viewpoint, which is not surprising when you check out their website. The walls are a lovely shade of blue-green, and there is an intimacy and warmness to the place that is stellar. There were people there, for sure, but it wasn't crowded. And the variety of people was interesting. An old Indian lady sat by herself. A Chinese couple set next to us. There was an interesting trio in a booth, one of whom opened up a bottle of wine using her teeth. Vintage Fleetwood Mac and various folk songs played at just-the-right decibal level.
The food: homey, simple yet complex, flavorful but not overpowering, delicious. A dish of Bang Bang Chicken (I did not make this name up) was somehow refreshing, with a flavor of deep sesame and a background of subtle Sichuan peppercorn and chile heat. The Braised Pork Szechuan style tasted like my Chinese grandmother* used to make it, with slabs of meaty and fatty pork belly braised with mustard greens, giving the whole dish an aromatic and pungent quality.
Other dishes were sampled. The Pork Dumplings in Chile Oil were slightly sweet and super savory. The Double Cooked Pork was smokey and just plain good.
Next to us, the Chinese couple feasted on a large pot of braised fish in chile oil. The smell was hallucination-inducing. I need to go back here very soon.
Interestingly, I just wrote my impressions of Redfarm, the all-the-rage Chinese place down in the West Village. While I enjoyed Redfarm, Cafe China was a much more memorable and alluring experience. I also spent way less than half of what I spent at Redfarm. Perhaps money doesn't matter, and the food, on its own merits, should be considered irrespective of cost. But if the food should be considered on its own merits, then Cafe China still steals the day.
The website for Cafe China has a charming "About Us" section. It closes: "Everything is imaginary... and real."
*I don't have a Chinese grandmother.