Gothamist recently trekked to Lai Yuen in Bay Ridge to sample what neighbors called (in punchy, Brooklyn dialect) “Chinese food to make Confucius proud.” Confucius likely turned in his grave at the suggestion that Lai Yuen’s Americanized offerings, while delicious, even remotely resemble the simple fare of his 5th century BCE brethren, but the experience was vivid nonetheless. It revealed, in white-gloved detail, the fading state of the disused Chinese restaurant concept; a fact which, in spite of itself, may have turned a place like Lai Yuen into a kind of relic.
Just as much of the nation has come to think of Domino’s and Papa John’s as the yardstick against which all pizza delivery is measured (naturally we know better), the fancy Chinese restaurant has been marginalized, replaced by the fast food Wing Huas and Wok n’ Rolls of the world. We’re not sure when it occurred, but somehow along the way, a pint of Lo Mein became something to be picked up on the way home from work—the rubbery beef and suspect poultry just par for the course. When were we robbed of the ceremony that once accompanied our trips to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant? Until Friday, we couldn’t remember the last time we cracked open our fortune cookies over a white tablecloth in the cool blue glow of a well-stocked aquarium or raised the lid of our teapot to signal a jacket and tie-clad server. We’re ashamed of our gradual consent to the sidelining of old-timey Chinese fare (unless you’re our grandmother, in which case, you’ve been fighting the good fight since ’62) and as of today, we’re demanding it back. You might say we’re putting the fun back in, um, Chow Fun (sorry).
Hearkening back to an aesthetic that includes warm towelettes hand delivered between courses, Lai Yuen speaks to our desire for crunchy noodles in wooden bowlsand an aging host in a two-button suit. The food, which often incorporates elaborate tableside service, isn’t half-bad. We kicked things off with Lai Yuen’s “Famous Eggroll" — famous more in the manner of Lisa Loeb than Madonna, as it turned out. Our server returned to set a gravy boat of Grand Mariner ablaze and spooned it over our “Volcano Beef,” drawing, to our delight, the attention of the entire dining room. The triangular chunks of filet mignon tasted vaguely of smoke but were a tasty foil for their simple accompaniment of pepper and onion. The “Basil Chicken” tasted suspiciously like “Sweet and Sour Chicken” with the occasional basil leaf tossed in for good measure. Foul play? Perhaps, but we munched away in joyful indifference while admiring the elaborate carrot flower garnish, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years.
A meal at Lai Yuen might end, as it should, with a plate of pineapple in sugary syrup. Ours incidentally, did not, as our incessant gawking and photo snapping wore thin before the dessert card was dropped. We did, however, get our fortune cookie which offered this bit of counsel:
“Time renews even the aged.”
Prophetic? We think so.
10033 4th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11209