A reader here at t:e a reader has been talking up Alen Lee's Westchester restaurants (Westcheraunts, if I may). When the news that Mr. Lee was opening a place in Ridgewood, NJ, the reader was very pleased indeed.
For my part, I was skeptical right out of the gate. Mr. Lee's restaurant are best described (and self-described) as "pan-Asian." To the best of my knowledge, that means various Asian cuisines on a single menu, tamed, with a some sugar added for American palates. I used to get a bit excited for this back in the 90's, when it all seemed new. Not so much anymore. I find the food too safe (chicken breast?), too sweet ("glazes" and whatnot), and just not terribly exciting (no tripe on these menus, that's for sure).
Well I finally got around to sampling some of the food at Wild Ginger (not related to Englewood's Japanese restaurant of the same name, but sister restaurant of Hoboken's), and boy oh boy, I'm big enough a man to admit when I'm right, and was I. It was the first day of what turned out to be a three day Asian craving. Suffice it to say the craving would have not lasted so long if I didn't dick around on the first two days.
In all fairness, we had the food delivered from Wild Ginger. Some might argue that this isn't a good barometer, but I think it's a fine barometer, and delivery saves me being subjected to the parking and amateurish service issues that come with most places in Ridgewood.
First up were the "sichuan dumplings." Doughy skins, flavorless filling.
Next was the chicken with string bean and garlic sauce. That sounded safe enough. Maybe it was too safe. It was near-flavorless. Chicken breast slices with string beans (they might have been Asian long beans, but I don't think so) and a lightly flavored sauce.
Against my better judgment, we ordered the Pad Thai. It was one of those "what the hell" moments. I didn't expect much, and I didn't receive much. Pad Thai is a dish that has many different faces. It can be light and summery, sweet and gloppy, sweet and summery, acidic and bright, and no doubt a few other ways that I've never had. But this was just very nothiny. No peanut flavor (isn't that pretty much a requirement?) It was herbal, which was nice, for a noodle dish, but not really for Pad Thai. Again, next to no real flavor to grab a hold of.
With my Asian fix not sated, I headed out to Shanghai Cafe in West Caldwell on day two. I read somewhere that they might have some Shanghai dishes. They do, and the ones I had weren't all that good.
This place is essentially pan-Asian, complete with the obligatory sushi bar.
Warning: iPhone photos ahead. [iPhone is a great "lifestyle device", but it sure is a crappy camera. and phone.]
I tried the salt and pepper calamari. It was barely fried, and barely salted/peppered for my taste. Chopped peppers and scallions dotted the plate, which were pretty good, although I'm used to garlic and cilantro with this dish. The calamari wasn't tender, and its lack of color didn't help my mouth's impression of the dish.
I also ordered Shanghai style baby shrimp, sauteed in Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine). It was an extremely simple dish (not a bad thing), with a unique, floral (lavender?) flavor. However, it was just too much of the same after a few bites. If I had friends, I'd order it to share. And I probably wouldn't have a blog.
Strike two. I couldn't even get on base in the sating-my-Asian-craving game.
At that point I knew what I had to do: hit one out of the park. And the place to do that is Chengdu 1 in Cedar Grove.
String beans (real chinese long beans) with minced pork.
Twice cooked pork belly.
Dry and spicy beef.
Shrimp with fresh chilis.
Say goodnight, Gracie.
Wild Ginger : Ridgewood, NJ
Shanghai Cafe : 771 Bloomfield Ave : West Caldwell, NJ : 973.403.8111
Chengdu 1 : 89 Pompton Ave (Pilgrim Shopping Center, behind the theater) : Cedar Grove, NJ : 973.239.7726