Per conventional wisdom, it’s a big mistake to go out for Chinese food in Midtown Manhattan. For great Chinese dishes in New York, make your way to Chinatown; if not the one in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn or Queens.
But that may no longer be the case, thanks to an increasingly impressive collection of Midtown spots specializing in Szechuan and Shanghai cooking. One of these, Jasmine, on 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues, is both a great find and a quick stroll from UN headquarters.
The restaurant opened nearly a year ago and offers a tantalizing choice of reasonably priced lunch specials with an encyclopedic bevy of choices from across China, both classic and obscure. The attentive, if not particularly friendly, staff will even bring you a bowl of peanuts to munch on while browsing through the lengthy menu and eyeing the alluring photographs of some of the more exotic dishes.
The kitchen’s quest for authenticity, however, merits a warning: more than once, while feeling my mouth catch fire from an authentically seasoned dish, I reflected on the establishment’s choice of a serene name like Jasmine. It is, above all, a pleasant place for an interesting meal. The background music is quiet enough to allow for easy conversation, and tables are generously spaced and covered with white tablecloths topped by white paper squares — which I managed to splotch with colorful sauce and tea stains within minutes of each meal I ate here.
As with many Chinese restaurants, the menu is so large that you wonder how they can keep that many ingredients on hand. Most main dishes are priced at around $20 but the special lunch menu, at $8.95, is a good deal. For that price, you are served a main dish, white or brown rice, and either a bowl of hot and sour soup or a spring roll. The spring rolls are pretty bland, so stick to the soup, which is one of the finer versions you will find in a city loaded with gloopy versions of this tired Szechuan restaurant standard. This soup features several varieties of mushroom floating in a nuanced broth.
Among the $8.95 specials, the braised pork belly is supertender and rich without being too fatty. The Mapo Tofu, a classic Szechuan bean-curd dish, was packed with chopped garlic and red chilis, totally anesthetizing my mouth in seconds. The Chongqing chili fried chicken also lived up to its name, combining chunks of lightly battered deep-fried boneless chicken with dry-fried peanuts, a heavy dose of Szechuan pepper — also known as numbing pepper — and a scary number of dried red chilis.
Chongqing is the latest spelling of Chunking, the city in southwestern China whose traditional cuisine leans heavily on Szechuan pepper, which leaves your tongue and lips numbed rather than stinging. The combination left me happily sniffling and in tears.
A generous appetizer of Szechuan chicken in spicy sauce ($13.95) consisted of toothsome, coarsely chopped chicken bits (watch out for slivers of bone) in a not-too-spicy red chili sauce, accompanied by bite-sized pieces of smashed cucumber and shredded cilantro. Soothing Shanghai-tossed noodles with shrimp ($10.95) teamed a mildly seasoned broth with smallish steamed shrimp, baby bok choy and browned scallion bits.
Jasmine promotes its offerings of handmade dim sum, nearly half of them variations on the traditional Shanghai steamed soup bun, a bulbous dumpling miraculously filled with clear broth. (Caution: There’s a trick to eating these without burning your tongue, which is never put an entire soup bun in your mouth at once. Instead, carefully lift one from the steamer with your soup spoon, gently poke a hole in its top with the end of your chopstick and slurp up the broth through the hole until the dumpling skin collapses and gets a chance to cool off.)
Jasmine also offers a different daily dim sum lunch special ($14.95) each day of the week. On Wednesdays, for example, Shanghai pan-fried dumplings are packaged with Shanghai tofu and meat soup and cold noodles in sesame sauce.
For a more ambitious noontime meal, bring a friend or two and check out the lavish daily “business lunch combo” ($39.95). On Mondays, for instance, this includes chicken with broccoli, Thai curry shrimp, sauteed eggplant with string bean, West Lake beef soup, rice and Shanghai soup buns.
The menu also features five varieties of hot pot ($16.95 to $18.95), eight types of meal-sized soups ($8.95 to $14.95) and numerous noodle and vegetarian dishes. There is also a list of “diet” dishes, prepared with no oil, salt or cornstarch. Jasmine even has a tea menu; while the bland house brew is offered free, fancier varieties go for $10 to $12 a pot. Teas are served in cunning pottery teapots that look handmade.
The decor is modern and tasteful, and the restaurant is equipped to handle crowds — 150 people at a time, according to its website — with a long main dining room lined with lime green banquettes and two semiprivate side rooms for groups and private events. There’s even a bar, to the left of the entryway, in case you crave a cold beer to cool off your palate on the way out.
Jasmine is open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Fridays from 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. It is located at 216 E. 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues; (212) 371-2348.
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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.