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Wakiya

The dressed-up Chinese at Wakiya gets lost in translation.

2 Lexington Ave., at 21st St. (Gramercy Park Hotel) (212) 995-1330
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5:45 p.m.-11 p.m, Sunday, 5:45 p.m.-10 p.m.
Cuisine: Contemporary regional Chinese
Vibe: Moody Asian den
Occasion: Swanky night out
Don’t Miss Dish: Shanghai soup dumplings
Drink Specialty: Cucumber martini
Price: Appetizers, $6-$34; Entrees, $13-$38; Desserts, $9-$14.
Reservations: Highly recommended

Designer-clad servers amble down a red carpet that streams through
Wakiya’s glossy dining room, flourished with floor-to-ceiling red
tassels and dark wood tables. “It’slike a catwalk,” Richie Notar, a managing partner of both Wakiya and Nobu restaurants, enthusiastically notes over the phone. “Women love it.”

On one visit, I spied Anna Wintour
dining front row center. I nearly expected she might pull out a pad and
jot down her impressions of Wakiya’s fall food collection. As
fashionable as the scenery, every dish arrives well-groomed.

Hotelier Ian Schrager
had his heart set on upscale Chinese from the inception of the newly
posh Gramercy Park Hotel. After scouring the globe and sifting through
three potential candidates, he imported chef Yuji Wakiya from Tokyo along with much of the menu – a fusion of Szechuan,
Shanghai and Cantonese traditions. This is Chinese food seen through
Japanese eyes, and, though the plating is artful, it comes at the
pivotal expense of flavor.

There is something to be said for a feisty General Tso’s chicken or a succulent Peking
duck carved at the table. Sadly, the Peking duck here turns up
disassembled, a skimpy stockpile of dried-out meat and rubbery skin. I
couldn’t resist the temptation of a side-by-side comparison with the
“Vegetarian Peking duck.”

Tightly wound layers of yuba – as bland as baby food – laced with
shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and yoji berries, had me longing for
a $1 Chinatown scallion pancake. A dainty spicy beef salad and cloying
muck of Tong Tsu (sweet & sour) sea bass failed to live up to their
signature, gutsy flavor profiles.

As I attempted to maneuver around the intricacies of the menu, I
felt as if I had fallen down Schrager’s rabbit hole into an Asian
Wonderland. Like the potions that tempt Alice, Wakiya’s plates come
replete with an exhaustive set of warnings: “Don’t touch the steaming
kettle,” our server urged. “Don’t eat the chouten peppers.”

The “fiery pepper hunt” was a futile search for buried treasure
beneath the hot chouten peppers, which unearthed only a few dull
nibbles of miso-battered chicken and lobster. “Be careful not to touch
the rocks,” our waitress instructed, as she poured a fragrant oolong
tea over the stones below a bamboo basket. Our listless medley of
steamed shrimp and vegetables wore a whopping $38 price tag.

But I would happily suffer again through the belabored explanation
accompanying the Shanghai soup dumplings – satiny purses that release a
savory pork broth over the tongue. Wakiya and his entourage of chefs
manage to achieve excellence with fresh shrimp and chive dumplings, as
well as corpulent crab dumplings. With a Sunday dim sum menu on the
horizon, Wakiya may actually emerge an attractive – albeit expensive –
dim sum brunch alternative.

Do plant yourself in the upfront lounge and hover over an expertly
concocted cocktail menu. An exotic cucumber martini, composed of litchi
juice, vodka and cucumber (seeds and all) was beyond refreshing, as was
the basil-specked watermelon cooler.

Wakiya is impeccably serviced, which comes as no surprise,
considering the Nobu management group is seasoned at catering to the
whims of their elite clientele. This is also the reason, as Richie
Notar indicates, that the windows are cloaked in beige and red silk.
While there is no view of Gramercy’s lush park, the privacy of the
glitzy patrons is secured.

Still, the kitchen struggles to evoke character from innately
dynamic ingredients. Perhaps it would all taste better in a Chinese
takeout box, eaten while curled up on the couch with a TV remote in
hand.

The “fiery pepper hunt” was a futile search for buried treasure
beneath the hot chouten peppers, which unearthed only a few dull
nibbles of miso-battered chicken and lobster. “Be careful not to touch
the rocks,” our waitress instructed, as she poured a fragrant oolong
tea over the stones below a bamboo basket. Our listless medley of
steamed shrimp and vegetables wore a whopping $38 price tag.

But I would happily suffer again through the belabored explanation
accompanying the Shanghai soup dumplings – satiny purses that release a
savory pork broth over the tongue. Wakiya and his entourage of chefs
manage to achieve excellence with fresh shrimp and chive dumplings, as
well as corpulent crab dumplings. With a Sunday dim sum menu on the
horizon, Wakiya may actually emerge an attractive – albeit expensive –
dim sum brunch alternative.

Do plant yourself in the upfront lounge and hover over an expertly
concocted cocktail menu. An exotic cucumber martini, composed of litchi
juice, vodka and cucumber (seeds and all) was beyond refreshing, as was
the basil-specked watermelon cooler.

Wakiya is impeccably serviced, which comes as no surprise,
considering the Nobu management group is seasoned at catering to the
whims of their elite clientele. This is also the reason, as Richie
Notar indicates, that the windows are cloaked in beige and red silk.
While there is no view of Gramercy’s lush park, the privacy of the
glitzy patrons is secured.

Still, the kitchen struggles to evoke character from innately
dynamic ingredients. Perhaps it would all taste better in a Chinese
takeout box, eaten while curled up on the couch with a TV remote in
hand.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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