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Dropping In on Shanghai’s Golden Age at Cafe China

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You only need to wander a few blocks from the UN campus for a tasty portrayal of what it might have been like to eat in Shanghai in the 1930s.

The recently opened Cafe China tries to be as much about theater as it is about food. But the kitchen is quite good, with both the preparation and the presentation well above what is typically found in a Midtown Chinese restaurant.

“This is Shanghai. It is the place where the East is embracing the West for the first time,” says the restaurant’s Web site [http://cafechinanyc.com/about.html], nudging you into a ’30s mood. “The result is exotic, of course, but also elegant and fascinating. Spend the night here, and let the imagination run wild.”

I’m sorry to say that my imagination had a hard time running wild, maybe because of the loud ambient buzz, reinforced by a steady soundtrack of classic pop hits ranging from Billie Holiday to the Doors. As with so many New York establishments, the noise level can make it a challenge to have distracting thoughts — not to mention a quiet conversation.

As for spending the night, a few service glitches we witnessed at neighboring tables during our visits suggested this could actually occur. Let’s hope the waiters are just a bit green and will pull themselves together in time, because it was clear they were trying very hard to please.

Cafe China’s decor is simple but heavy in atmospherics. The front wall is made of glass doors that can open onto a relatively quiet block of 37th Street on a warm day, and a waiting area in front is outfitted with a leather settee and a low wooden rack of reading material.

Cafe China, Midtown East, NYC
At Cafe China, a new restaurant on E. 37th Street, the mood and food are meant to evoke Shanghai's Golden Era of the 1930s. PHOTO BY IRWIN ARIEFF

Antique-style brass-and-glass lamps light the front and rear rooms, which are divided by a wall of beds, while pastel portraits of women hearkening back to Shanghai’s Golden Era adorn the walls. A birdcage hanging next to the door is fitted with a large candle instead of a canary.

The food comes in traditional blue and white tableware, accompanied by cloth napkins, forks and real wooden chopsticks. The dishes range from familiar (pot stickers, tea-smoked duck, bok choi with garlic, Kung Pao chicken, Dan Dan noodles) to the exotic (a tofu stew spiked with braised duck’s blood, sautéed loofah and two frog dishes, for example), but are generally well executed, generously spiced and attractively presented.

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The kitchen’s geographic reach extends well beyond Shanghai, touching down in Hong Kong, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing and Xiangtan. Servings are moderately sized: big enough to satisfy but not overwhelming. Alcohol is not offered now, a shame since the bar area is extremely stylish.

The menu is divided into cold dishes (most are $7 to $9); dim sum (mostly $5 to $6); vegetables ($10 to $15); and main courses (ranging from $9 for a fish soup with pickled greens to $25 for a gorgeous Chungking braised fish in broth in an oversize bowl).

We particularly liked the variety of the more than 20 cold dishes, and many of the main courses were spectacular in appearance as well as flavor.

Lunch is an attractive option at Cafe China. The kitchen offers 14 such specials — $9, mostly — with rice and soup or spring rolls. There’s also a selection of rice and noodle dishes at $8 to $11. Make a total pig of yourself and supplement the special with a dish of dumplings.

At dinner, two three-course combinations are also offered at a fixed price of $68 for two people.

Cafe China is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and is located at 13 E. 37th St. between Madison and Fifth Avenues. (212) 213-2810.

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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