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Spice Up Your Life: Fiery Sichuan Specialties at One Dragon

Spice Up Your Life: Fiery Sichuan Specialties at One Dragon

A Gilded Star Craft from Outer Space

There’s an eternal sense of hopeful despair among my fellow Beijing and Sichuan food enthusiasts. We long for the day when a truly exceptional high-end Chinese restaurant lands in our midst, like some gilded star craft from outer space. This restaurant would not be the clubby, overpriced satellite of some formerly Michelin-praised joint in London or Singapore. No, the noodles and dumpling skins would be hand-rolled in-house, not trucked in from some downtown market. The menu would be filled with stately renditions of old and new banquet classics – suckling pig, please. And the prices would not rise as inevitably the quality levels off, as the highly credentialed captain of this starship from Chengdu or Guangzhou or Taipei actually stays in town for more than a year or two before settling in the suburbs of LA or Richmond, Virginia.

On the surface at least, One Dragon would seem to be just such a place. The restaurant is located in the heart of Shanghai, having been recently purchased by a Chinese insurance company. They’ve hired a fancy chef-consultant to help exquisitely articulate the complexity of Chinese flavors, as the restaurant’s website proudly proclaims.

Elaborate Sourcing and Presentation

The dining room at One Dragon has been fitted with a black lacquer bar trimmed in gold, plum-blossom-twig wallpaper, and galloping horses painted along a sepia-toned mural. The tables are set with long-handled spoons and two sets of chopsticks – just like in the grand restaurants of Shanghai or Taipei. “The white one is for sharing, the black is for personal use,” intoned our waiter, who hails from Hong Kong by way of Staten Island.

The chef leading this lavish starship operation is Kong Khai Meng, a well-traveled culinary expert who has graced the kitchens of the W Taipei, the Dragon Hotel in Hangzhou, and the Jumeirah Mina ASalam in Dubai, where he also served as the Chinese corporate chef for the Royal Family Zabeel Kitchen of His Highness. Though not originally from China, Chef Kong specializes in the elaborately sourced, pan-Chinese hotel cooking that has become a recent development in the long history of Chinese cuisine.

Much of this style of cooking would be only vaguely recognizable to anyone who grew up enjoying the delicate soups and stews of Shanghai or the fiery regional specialties of Hunan or Sichuan. The menu at One Dragon is an abbreviated one by Chinese standards, arranged in a Western-style appetizer, entrée, and “to share” format. It even contains a trendy New York-style raw bar section, inspired (according to our friendly Staten Island waiter) by delicacies from the coastal province of Zhejiang.

Hits and Misses

Not that you’ll find buttons of sweet lobster tail like this anywhere along the coast of central China – it’s trucked in from the American coastal province of Maine and dressed excellently with slips of daikon marinated in cinnamon and star anise. Or pieces of equally excellent fluke, doused with an ethereal substance called “smoked peony oil.” The tuna tartare at One Dragon even contains sesame seeds, baby tomatoes, and little pockets of caviar. You can enjoy it on a cold winter’s evening with bowls of eggy, restorative “Eight Hour Golden Broth” folded with bits of crabmeat and more lobster from Maine.

Some of Chef Kong’s classic compositions have a slightly more denatured quality to them, but if you choose wisely and have some cash in your pocket, you can still make a decent meal. The great Sichuan specialties – chicken with cashews, chilled chicken with pepper sauce and peanuts – tasted like toothless imitations of the real thing, although none of the grizzled New Yorkers at my table had any complaints about the sticky Taiwanese-style spare ribs (bone-in, with a tangy kumquat glaze) or the stack of crisped Spanish mackerel, which the kitchen scents with puffs of smoke tinged with the kind of flower you usually find in your Chinese tea.

Chef Kong’s wan approximation of Peking duck had a wet, un-crispy quality to it, as if it had just been run slowly through the kitchen dishwasher. But the wok-fried long beans with minced pork disappeared from the table in seconds, as did the strips of Berkshire-pork collar, which the kitchen encrusts in a thick crackle of honey from the rooftop apiary – like some extravagant millionaire’s version of Chinatown char siu.

A Decent Overseas Chinese Restaurant

So, is One Dragon the great Chinese restaurant New York has been waiting for? The consensus among the hopeful experts at my table was a resounding “probably not.” As one of them called it, “a good overseas Chinese restaurant.” Though those of us on expense accounts agreed we’d be happy to return for a taste of house specials like the egg custard stuffed with bits of hairy crab and served on a nest of straw.

There have been the usual rumors, hotly denied by the hotel, that Starship Captain Kong may soon jet off to some distant corner of the luxury-hotel start-up galaxy. But even if this happens, I doubt it will affect the quality of the impressive tea selection (try the Dong Ding rolled oolong from Taiwan) or the elaborate fusion desserts, which include a chocolate cake spiked pleasantly with Sichuan peppers and an entire poached Bosc pear flavored much less pleasantly with a substance called “peach-tree gum.”

Spice Up Your Life at One Dragon

So while One Dragon may not be the gilded star craft from outer space that my fellow Sichuan food snobs have been dreaming of, it’s certainly a restaurant worth visiting for the adventurous diner. With its focus on high-quality ingredients and innovative interpretations of classic Sichuan dishes, One Dragon is sure to spice up your life with its fiery Sichuan specialties.

If you find yourself in Shanghai, be sure to visit One Dragon and explore the depths of their menu. From the elegant raw bar to the decadent fusion desserts, there’s something to satisfy every palate. And if you’re craving the authentic heat of Sichuan cuisine, don’t miss out on their renditions of classic dishes like kung pao chicken, mapo tofu, and tea-smoked duck. Prepare to have your taste buds set ablaze in the best possible way.

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