Our Birthday Trip to New York was quickly coming to an end. We had an amazing time. We saw Mean Girls, Puffs, and some Improv and ate some great food. With just a few hours left in the city, I could only think of one fitting way to end this trip. MORE EATING!!!! We saved the best for last. Eating at a Michelin-Starred restaurant… ON A BUDGET. This is one of Stephanie and I’s favorite things to do in a new city; find a way to eat the highest quality of food on a budget. So we headed to Cafe China
Can You Really Eat at Michelin-Star Restaurants on a Budget?
Yes, yes you can. When it comes down to it you just need to do be smart about it and do your research. Generally, starred restaurants are among the most expensive restaurants in a city. Usually it is for good reason. The food is generally among the best you will ever eat. However, every city has its hidden gems. For instance, when in Rome, Stephanie and I had a two course lunch at a 1-Star Restaurant The Corner for 20 Euro each and in Japan we had lunch at a Michelin-Star Ramen restaurant Tsuta for under $10 each.
The key is to find the Michelin list and look for the rare affordable restaurant. If there aren’t any, look for lunch specials. While the overall experience may be slightly less at lunch, the food is just as fantastic and you generally pay a fraction of the price.
As the child of two New Yorkers, I was basically raised on Chinese food. So when i found Cafe-China, a 1-star restaurant with a lunch menu under $15 a person, it was a no brainer.
Cafe China is located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan and specializes in Sichuan chinese food. However, it seems silly for an amatuer like me to describe it, take it from a Michelin Guide Inspector:
“Blink and you’ll miss its nondescript façade, but what a shame, for Café China is a little journey into the intense pleasures of Sichuan cuisine by way of midtown. Inside find a long and narrow space outfitted with seductive portraits of 1930’s Shanghai starlets, bright red chairs, bamboo planters and a dominating marble-and-wood bar. After struggling with their on-again-off-again popularity, this kitchen is back on track, creating Sichuan dishes with great aplomb. Their particular strength lies in the elegant and effortless contrast of complex flavors, even when the prep is decidedly simple—as evidenced by the steamed eggplant or the deliciously tender tea-smoked duck. Pickled vegetables achieve harmonious balance between sour and fiery notes; sliced conch pairs perfectly with that ubiquitous mouth-tingling chili oil; and tender pork dumplings arrive atop a delicious bath of soy sauce, and of course, more chili oil. The use of such top-quality ingredients as in the Chungking chicken special, alternately tender and crispy with dried chillies and sesame seeds; or even in the lamb coated with smoky cumin and fried to perfection is yet another instance of the feat of this kitchen.”
Cafe China was relatively close to our hotel in Midtown and we ended up walking past it a few times while we were in New York. Regardless of whether it was lunchtime or dinnertime, Cafe China always seemed crowded. So larger groups should probably make reservations. Unfortunately, they do not take reservations for groups less than 4. So we decided to drop by around noon and test our luck.
Our Cafe China Experience
Even on this random monday in January, there was hardly an empty seat.
We were, however, lucky enough to grab the last two seats available at the bar.
We both ordered from the lunch menu which is served from 11am-3pm on weekdays and includes white or brown rice and hot and sour soup or a spring roll. I went with the fried rice with shredded duck. Stephanie ordered the Three Pepper Chicken stir fried with green & red chilli pepper & peppercorn.
There are a lot of places I like to eat, but the best places are those that make eating seem like something more than just necessary to sustain life. Part of that is the experience of the restaurant, but that can be done more so with flavor. When you leave those restaurants you have this sense of satisfaction which lingers for hours if not days after. It is that feeling which I normally associate with a great show or book, but when I eat the perfect symphony of flavors it can hit me. This was one of those times. In true chinese food fashion stephanie and I shared both dishes. They were both above and beyond anything I walked in expecting and were the perfect pairing.
They were polar opposites when it came to flavor. Stephanie’s chicken just hits you in the mouth with a perfect blend of pepper and spices. While my duck, was a subtle savory dish with flavors that enticed me to take bite after bite. While it is hard to compare two amazing dishes, I actually did prefer Stephanie’s. Lucky for me she was not super hungry so I ate the lion’s share of both dishes. We walked out of Cafe China in complete and utter bliss.
So how much did we pay for this feast? $23 dollars before tax and tip. Cafe China’s lunch specials run from $10-$15 dollars an entree, which is a steep discount off its dinner prices which range from $12-$46/entree. Moral of the story go for lunch, you won’t be disappointed.
Cafe China is a Michelin-Star feast for those on a budget. For less than $15 per person you can experience a symphony of flavors.