This restaurant is closed!
1081 Third Avenue
City: New York, NY
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Area: East 60s
Entree Price: $20-25
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard JCB
My Dinner at Mainland It has happened. Brace yourselves. Chinese food has gone and grown up (or at least grown into the New York culinary spotlight). It is no longer the realm of 100-item take out menu ordered from on rainy nights, and by Jews all over the country on Christmas. A trend that began with China Grill in the 80s and laid dormant until JGV gave birth to 66, is now in serious reproduction mode. In the past year, it has gone from greasy-guilty-take-out to dress-me-up-and-take-me-out with Xing, Yumcha, and now this fabulous new baby—Mainland. Designed by Morris Nathanson (Abboccato, Molyvos, Beacon), Mainland, billed as neo-traditional Chinese, is a sexy, sunken ski lodge as Zen temple. The lounge—a cozy, window-less space filled with club chairs and snuggly sofas—makes you feel as though you are at the base of a ski lift somewhere in the mountains of China, a vibe that also pervades the snug subterranean dining room warmed with wood floors, anchored by oversized plush circular banquettes, and lit with very flattering amber lighting. (If only Chinatown restaurants could get lighting like this.) The bathrooms are laid with stone tiles and have an Asian spa feel, fully equipped with a serene soundtrack that could lull you into a trance. Stay alert. You won’t want to miss dinner. While the décor is cool, the centerpiece of Mainland is the handmade brick oven where chef Brian Young (Le Bernardin, Pop, Citarella the Restaurant, Harvest on Hudson) roasts his signature (and delicious) Peking Duck ($26/$49). Young traveled to Beijing to study the art of Peking Duck, where he learned about its origins. The recipe dates back to 1864 in Peking, the capital of China during the reign of Qing Emperor Tongzhi. A guy named Quanren Yang owned a restaurant called Quan Ju De, which is still in existence today. In addition to the restaurant, Yang had a duck farm and a fruit farm where he grew apples and peaches. As the fruit trees were picked, he wound up with a lot of trimmings from the wood, and instead of throwing them away he used the scraps to cook the ducks at the restaurant, and so Peking duck got its start. Here at Mainland Young aims to replicate authentic Peking Duck ritual in every way. First of all, the duck has to be cleaned a certain way to maintain the integrity of the body cavity and the skin. It must be cleaned out from a small incision underneath the wing. All the innards are pulled out through this small incision, so that the body cavity is never pierced. In China, after the innards are removed, they blow air into the duck through the neck, but rather than using his own breath, Young uses an air compressor. (Health code an all.) This air-blowing step is crucial because it physically separates the skin from the meat, which makes the skin as crispy as it can be, and allows the meat to become juicier, because it becomes insulated by the skin’s blanket of fat. The next step is the duck bath—immersing and brining the duck in a boiling “double secret mixture” of maltose, sugar, black vinegar and spices to seal the skin. Since the mixture is boiling, the skin seizes up and tightens, and creates a big air pocket between the between the skin and the meat, again to make the skin even more crunchy. The ducks are then air dried overnight, to give them a glassy smooth skin. Many restaurants take a short cut at this point and deep-fry the ducks, and then let them hang out. At Mainland, there are no short cuts. Young cooks the entire duck in the fruitwood-fired oven, which is sent from oven to table on a gurney manned by a white-clad carver. Young has three carvers, one whom he imported from Beijing, whose sole responsibility is the slicing of the ducks. (I want to rent one for Thanksgiving. They are good.) “These guys are like pitchers in a baseball game,” Young explained to me. “That’s all they do.” These duck surgeons are all business. Do not pepper them with jokes or commentary; you will be ignored. They cannot be distracted because they are racing against the clock. Peking Duck tradition dictates that the carver must complete the mission—from first slice to last—in 8 minutes as the skin must be eaten within 10 minute of coming out of the oven for maximum crispness. The gold standard in the world of carving is 108 slices in 8 minutes. But Young reports that there was not even one person close to it in China. The average is more like 60-80 slices. The carvers first hack off the smooth-as-glass skin, and then slice into the meat, leaving only a clean carcass behind. We watched in awe, and then ate in a happy frenzy, the five of us girls swiping skin and meat from the central plate, piling our treasured meat into lotus leaf pancakes (thin delicate flour pancakes), topping it off with ribbons of shredded scallions and sliced cucumbers, and a drizzle of sweet bean sauce, before folding up the overstuffed duck tacos, and inhaling them. In my humble often-meaningless opinion, there is now a serious culinary reason to head up to 64th Street and Third Avenue. The menu at Mainland could honestly feature these golden skinned babies and perhaps a couple of bottles of sake, and that’s all and it would be enough. They don’t need to serve anything else. But since they do, we ordered more. The Shanghai-styled soup dumplings ($9), here called Juicy Boiled Dumplings, are quite lovely—bulging, pinched purses, bobbing in broth, and filled with rich stock and ground pork. Being that there were five of us at dinner—Cori, Robin, Andrea (another one, in addition to me), and Debbie—we had to share some dumplings, but the Steamed Prawn and Bamboo Dumplings ($10), wrapped in glossy rice wrappers, were especially hard to share. If you are with a large group, I recommend two orders. Lamb Spring Rolls ($11) with scallions and spicy cabbage were also hard to part with—thin, lean pipes, crispy and slightly greasy (in a good way), stuffed with minced lamb meat. The only disappointment was the potstickers—triangular envelopes filled with ground pork, yellow chives, and ginger. The filling and the flavors were good, but they lacked the crisp fried skin you expect from potstickers. They were a bit soggy. The Wok-Seared Hong Kong Style Noodles with Cantonese-Style Lobster ($24), however, was stellar—silky chow fun tangled up with lumps of sweet lobster, and lots of heat. We also tried a special that night—a delicate fillet of wild white salmon from Alaska that was simply steamed with ginger and soy, the silky, snowy flesh steeped in sheer, clear and intense flavors. Young spent three years working at Le Bernardin, so he knows his way around a fish. His Wok-Seared Dungeness Crab (M/P) is not as delicate or refined as that salmon. Rather than a quiet Indie film, it is a slamming, chile-crazed, high-energy Hollywood action flick—a giant crab shell crowning a mess of lanky limbs, showered in jalepenos, dried Thai bird chiles, sharp scallions, and toasted sesame oil. If you have the patience to take out the meat from the legs, you will be rewarded. I don’t have that sort of patience, but my friend Cori, who grew up in Baltimore and is a crab-eating pro, had a jolly good time. Me? I am a Jewish girl from Queens. I don’t know from crab. So instead of dealing with the crab legs, I focused on the fierce and fiery sauce—ladling it onto my plate and using it as an alternate condiment for my Peking duck tacos, happy as a clam. We didn’t even make a dent in Young’s menu, but if the rest of what he is making follows the line of what we had that night it will be quite impressive (and fun to eat). Since the menu is quite large though, Mainland lends itself to festive dining among at least four if not many more friends. If you are not up for a big meal and the madness of a large group, grab a friend and retire to the restaurant’s great lounge, an easy place to relax and catch up with a friend (or a date) and have a few cocktails (Julia Martin did the list and it’s great), and snack on salads, dumplings, ducks, whatever you like. Snuggled into one of the deep couches, you can pretend you are at home having take out. But someone else gets to clean up.
Review By: Andrea Strong