Chinese food is one of New York City's major food groups. But in my experience, finding the real deal usually involves a labyrinthine journey that starts with a tip from an in-the-know New Yorker and ends in a cramped hole-in-the-wall in the depths of Chinatown.
So I was more than a little surprised on our recent Big Apple family visit when such a tip led to the Liberty View -- a new Chinese restaurant with delicious, often exotic specialties, served not in a down-and-dirty dive but in one the city's most beautiful and dramatic spots: the tip of Manhattan, featuring a waterfront view of the Statue of Liberty.
The setting is New York's once neglected Battery, which includes about 23 acres of waterfront historic monuments and parkland now in the midst of a decade-old renaissance that accelerated after Sept. 11, 2001. Battery Park and the waterfront esplanades that stretch along the Hudson -- a short walk from where the World Trade Center towers stood -- have been redesigned, rebuilt and replanted. Music and arts festivals have followed and the Battery now rivals Central Park for the title of New York's most satisfying open space for visitors.
Arriving on a warm late-summer evening, we were seated on the terrace under the trees of the esplanade a few yards from water's edge. We took up a strategic position with an unobstructed view of Lady Liberty in the distance. As the sun set, she and her torch lit up as if on cue -- turning Liberty Island into the focal point of the harbor.
We were each presented with a pair of menus. One was large, professionally printed in color and featured traditional Szechuan and Cantonese dishes. The second looked as if it had been tapped out on an old Royal typewriter and placed in a plastic binder: This represented the "Shanghainese" cuisine of the restaurant's "Celebrity Chef Bai."
Both menus made for extensive reading and were in three languages -- English, Chinese and numbers -- which could come in handy when ordering esoteric dishes from the Shanghai menu, such as "Stewed pork in an earthenware pot favored by the poet Su Dong Po of Hang Zhou during the song dynasty (960 AD-1269 AD). Served w. steamed buns . . . $12.95."
Of course, we didn't have to order it to feel we were in the right place.
We began with a selection of appetizers from the Shanghai menu, including the scallion pancake ($3.95), a sort of Chinese-style focaccia, along with one of the big specialties: steamed juicy buns with crabmeat and pork (six for $6.95).
Whether these buns are unique to New York (as our waiter claimed) or not, they are worth a trip to Manhattan for the entertainment value alone. The buns resemble standard Chinese dumplings, only they are filled with about a tablespoon of tangy cooking juices in addition to meat, giving them the feel of small water balloons. Our waiter carefully explained the trick for eating these little devils. You delicately flop one into a large ceramic soup spoon, then nibble off a corner while sucking out the liquids before you gobble up the rest.
My first try went perfectly. On the second attempt, however, an ill-placed bite exploded that small thing like an overripe cherry tomato. Fine streams of juice rained down on the nice tablecloth, but luckily avoided my wife, mother and son, as well as my clean linen shirt.
We followed with "Peking Duck, Crispy" ($34.95), which was everything it promised. The duck skin was the lightest and crispiest I can remember tasting.
We gambled on a side dish of "Shredded tofu sheets with preserved cabbage and green soybeans" ($9.95), which our waiter tried to discourage my wife from ordering. "Chinese people like it," he said with a shrug. We liked it too: The shredded tofu was more like pan-fried noodles than your standard soybean block.
My complaint was that for a restaurant of this caliber, there was no wine list -- only a tiny selection of house wines by the glass ($5). The food, the view and the evening deserved better. According to the manager, a wine list will be added soon.
After dinner we strolled downriver, passing fishermen (Chinese men pulling eel out of some pretty murky water), parks with replanted native grasses and newly built outlooks and plazas. Taking in the panoramic sweep of New York Harbor, it's hard not to be moved by its intricate geographical beauty and sense of place -- on the symbolic edge of the New World.
-- Robert V. Camuto
Dinner at Liberty View (21 S. End Ave., 212- 786-1888) runs about $20 per person, plus drinks and tip. Reservations suggested.