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RESTAURANTS : STILL A MAIN EVENT : A New Chef and Classic Dishes: Chinois Food Is Still Amazing. So Is the Attitude.

August 23, 1992|Ruth Reichl

"I'd like to reserve a table for four at 7:30 a week from next Monday."

"I don't have one."

"How about Wednesday night?"

"No, nothing."

"What about the following Monday?"

"I'll have to put you on hold."

There is a 90-second wait. Then, "No, we don't have anything then, either."

"What's the first night you can give me a table at 7:30?"

"We don't take 7:30 reservations."

I was back on hold, so my scream of indignation fell into a dead phone. I would be put on hold three more times before I finally managed to procure a reservation for dinner at 8 at Chinois on Main, 10 days thence.

But the wait was just starting. "We can't seat you until your entire party arrives," we were told when we arrived. When the laggard arrived--four minutes later--the hostess assured us that we would have a table very soon. She kept assuring us of this as we stood at the bar. Between assurances, passing busboys tried, with varying success, not to slam hot plates into our backs as they slid through the crowd. "We'll have a table for you soon," the hostess repeated. And repeated.

"Why do people put up with this?" we wondered when we sat down at our table half an hour later. And then the first dish arrived.

Fried soft-shell crabs are difficult to do well. If the oil is too hot, the outside cooks too quickly; if it's not hot enough, they are greasy. These were so crisp they crunched as we bit into them and so flavorful the briny taste of the sea was left on our lips after the last crab was gone. Their shells were so soft they seemed to have melted away, leaving nothing but a crisp coat of batter and the sweet meat of the crab. This is particularly impressive because crabs start growing a new shell the minute they shed the old one.

The crabs were sitting on a spiky bed of fried spinach, each leaf like a translucent jewel that crackled in the mouth with the sharp, green flavor of the vegetable. The sauce, served in a bowl on the side, was made of cilantro and sesame, two strong flavors that somehow muted one another until they had mellowed into the perfect counterpoint to the crabs' richness.

"This is why people spend hours trying to get in here!" we cried.

I think I should say now that I am no stranger to Chinois. I spent a good part of 1983 and early 1984 writing about the opening of the restaurant. I was there on opening day, when the top for the bar was delivered (it didn't fit), the electrician hooked up the juice (just three hours before the first customer was due), and the painter put down his last brush (two minutes before the deadline). I remember when owner Wolfgang Puck was going to put goat-cheese dim sum on the menu. And I remember why he didn't (they were awful).

I watched the menu evolve. And I watched it stop evolving. Over the years, the menu got stuck; it wasn't broken, so Puck didn't try to fix it, but for me, some of the joy went out of the restaurant. I wanted to see Chinois grow and change, but it just seemed to sit there. And as my tastes changed, I started feeling that the food was too rich.

Now the menu seems to have come unstuck. With the departure last year of longtime chef Kazuto Matsusaka, who has moved on to open his own place on the site of the former Fennel, there is a new chef, Makoto Tanaka, formerly of Puck's Spago, and he is bringing new energy to the menu.

Tanaka's food seems simpler than the old food, relying more on the contrast of clear flavors than on the power of richness. A case in point is the lo mein, served only at lunchtime. Thin Chinese noodles are showered with vegetables--tiny asparagus no larger than pipe cleaners and flavorful baby eggplants, the flesh green against the deep purple of the skin. There are mushrooms--tiny enoki and small shiitake. There are red peppers and little florets of broccoli. And they are all set off by the sharp clarity of sliced scallion greens. But what sets these noodles apart from those you'd find in a good Chinese restaurant is their sauce, which gives them a silky sheen. Made of soy, honey and black bean sauce, it has just enough butter to lend it substance and depth. The resulting noodles are everything that's best about the West and the East, tossed together in a single dish.

Tanaka has been serving a dish of freshwater eel; people who like to order eel at sushi bars and fear to eat it anywhere else should try this special. It is deeply charred, so there is an edge to the sweet flesh, and then served with a salad made of jicama, pineapple, red cabbage, tomatoes and endive. The flavors are fresh and unexpected, and they work beautifully together.

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