A Taste of Vintage Shanghai Glamour
By Sophia Hsu Photography by Erik Teng
This New York City winter felt like one of the snowiest on record. As our photographer Erik Teng and I make our way through the slush-covered sidewalks of Tribeca, we nearly pass the speakeasy-esque entrance to China Blue, save for the small subtle sign next to the large, windowless wooden doors of 135 Watts Street overlooking the East River and New Jersey skyline.
We step from the unassuming cobblestone street into another era. The décor is reminiscent of the glamour of the 1920’s and‘30’s Shanghai. The space is massive, with every detail meticulously appointed like a perfectly accessorized actress making her way down the red carpet. Blue dominates as only it should in a venue named China Blue; from the subdued sea-glass blue walls that lend themselves to the vintage feel of a traditional dim sum house in an old seaport town to the blue patterned table settings. Even the music, a well-mixed playlist of classic French standards and modern lounge beats, lulls you into a time warp taking you to the former fishing village turned Eastern and Western cultural nexus.
Surprised by the authentic dishes offered, such as sautéed loofah with bean curd puffs, steamed fish, and lightly sautéed snow pea shoots, each dish takes me to a childhood memory. Ms. Wang has carefully selected the dishes for their traditional flavors, but she also fully admits to being very discerning when it comes to Chinese food,which really really makes the menu.
Indecisive, I request of the chef three dishes that he feels are his signature dishes that people should really try, but rarely order. Of the bartender Gary, I task him with a cocktail that is most representative of China Blue. The house cocktails are all named after the owner’s favorite movies, and for those in the know, almost a game of film aficionado’s bingo.
As we settle in and set up, Yiming Wang, owner and designer of China Blue, swings by and apologizes beforehand for only having a moment to chat. “A new restaurant is like a newborn baby in need of constant care and attention.” I comment on how much I enjoy the music. “The music is major part of the design,” states Ms. Wang. As a designer, she took every element into consideration from the fully stocked, marble bar, to the vintage curio cradling the point of sale terminal to the fringe curtains. After a soft opening in January, the restaurant is well-attended for a slushy Monday night. “New Yorkers are culturally astute and curious to try new things,” which Ms. Wang credits with the instant popularity of her second venture. She is also a force behind the Sichuanese-influenced Café China in the prime location of Midtown East.
The chef sends out three dishes: drunken chicken, fish blossom, and fermented tofu flavored pork. Though drunken chicken is never my first choice because of its bluntness and overbearing flavors, this delicately inebriated, chilled chicken simply invites the eater to have more. The fish blossom, by far, is the evening’s star by maintaining its crispiness under a generous amount of diced vegetables and sauce. A rich, sweet red sauce would be completely overpowering for a simply prepared fish, but again, the chef has managed to fine tune the yin of the fried fish to the yang of the sticky, sweet sauce. Fermented tofu is a Taiwanese delicacy which I always keep at hand but never thought to combine it in a marinade. The naturally smoky fermented tofu compliments the solid cubes of pork and fat in this surprisingly non-greasy dish. Without prior knowledge of what the chef would send out, the bartender sends over a 2046 cocktail and a Flowers of Shanghai cocktail, both clean and bright in flavor perfectly matching the precisely balanced flavors of all three dishes.
With delightful, on-point staff, finely-tuned authentic dishes my parents would approve, and cocktails that compliment the menu, China Blue is a newcomer to the NYC eatery scene that I predict will soon become an NYC fixture and tastemaker.