November 2, 1992 | Vintage Insatiable
David Keh's Noodle Road: A Wok in Progress
The worst flaw in David K’s Noodle Road is that it’s too small for the stampeding gourmands who are going to fall in love with Simon Teng’s born-again cooking. There just hasn’t been enough glorious Chinese food to comfort us for much too long. Now, here it is. Alas, there are only 70 seats to juggle till David Keh’s Shanghai 1933 opens in the glass-roofed pavilion above (and he insists it will star another chef with still another menu).
How lonely and forlorn the place looks, the pinched, stark little tunnel stretching back into a mock (mirrored) infinity, somber gray floor, street-market flowers, the only promise that first night the platters of shiny brown stuff wrapped in plastic, displayed on industrial metal shelves. The house is empty, and there is Keh himself, smiling but surely still dazed from the fire that wiped him out uptown, closing the failing remnant of what was once the grandest temple of our adopted faith.
There is wine by the glass and Chinese beer, but the bar has yet to be stocked. We settle into good-looking chairs—hand-me downs from Café Marimba, painted black. A waiter distributes huge white buns that remind me of Wonder bread compressed into bullets for food fights. “What is this all about?” asks a guest in querulous disdain. We order a little of this and a bit of that from the plastic-shrouded vittles, and after half an hour of dipping and mopping peppery condiments and exquisite sauces with pasty dough, Ms. Dubious is dispatching a waiter for seconds.
What’s going on here? Where did these remarkable dishes come from? So many never encountered before. Were they hiding in the inscrutable calligraphy on the walls of Chinatown? Soft and porridge-like turnip cakes to jolt the most jaded taste into a state of alert—an absolute must. Savory winter greens and bean curd, a tangle of exotica. Luscious “five o’clock chicken” with bean curd puffs in casserole. Perhaps the crispest, leanest duck skin ever tucked into delicate pancakes with scallion and hoisin. And soft, impossibly long noodles with meatballs a lot like Mom used to make. I box the leftovers to take home to an ailing friend and, the next morning, find myself scavenging what remains for breakfast. Stuffed peppers, plumped eggplant good to the last bit of savory pork. (I’m not supposed to use “savory” twice in one page. Forgive me; I can’t help it.)
If you’ve been a New York foodnik long enough, David Keh figures prominently in your resume. It’s almost 30 years since he arrived from China, riding Greyhound across he country with a bag of hard-boiled eggs to eat along the way, and found a job sweeping the Chinese pavilion at the World’s fair in Queens. From Szechaun Taste in Chinatown to Szechaun on upper Broadway, Szechaun East (which became Pig Heaven), Uncle Tai’s, Peng’s, and Auntie Yuan, we were chop-suey noodlers growing up with him.
When Keh took over the Fortune Garden Pavillion, with it’s awkward entrance and skylight duplex, he said he would install a noodle shop below and ambitious Shanghai 1933 above. So it’s a shock to discover that Noodle Road is not a noodle shop (still, thanks to a master of doughmanship from Ollie’s, the dumplings are splendid, and a classic like crisp noodles with pork and leeks can be remarkable). Clearly, Noodle Road veered upscale once Simon Teng (the strength of Auntie Yuan and Pig Heaven) was persuaded to abandon his own namesake shop uptown for another ride with David.
Then came the fire, the lapsed insurance, and who knows what Byzantine knots—though I count myself a friend of Keh’s, and was part of a gourmanical band he led through China long ago, he remains infinitely mysterious. So maybe it’s a cash-flow issue—the dolorous look, the push to open before the liquor arrives, the indifference to dessert. That’s fixed now—there’s fruit, ice cream or sorbet, and apple cake baked by Jean Keh.
(There actually is a tiny noodle shop below—Little Noodle Road, sign on order—with seventeen seats plus carryout and delivery. Enter around the corner, through the lower concourse of 805 Third Avenue. Everything is cooked to order, exceptional food at rock-bottom prices: hot-and-sour soup, 92 cents; plump chicken wings, $2.19 for six; the same spicy bean curd for sale upstairs, $5.79—a boon for the neighborhood.)
A few days later, the plastic wrap is gone and the Scotch is flowing. Now see-through domes guard the deceptively look-alike appetizers. We are sampling just-grilled-chicken salad with a crackle of rice noodles, giant half-moons of rusty leek dumplings and seafood pan stickers, sublime hot-and-sour seafood soup, beef in subtly perfumed consommé. Budgeteers can eat well focusing on the low-end entrees, mostly $10 or less. There’s a $14.98 prix fixe lunch, too. Wantons intent on revisiting mythic dishes from Keh’s past -- Uncle Tai’s orange beef, Auntie Yuan’s jumbo shrimp, Uncle Lou’s fatty oxtail in a heady sauce vibrant with star anise—or Peking duck and Peking chicken will spend more. And for $32, I’d like to see the rest of the duck—with vegetables, perhaps, or in a soup.
This being the nutrition-savvy nineties, I crave more green. If the waiter forgets to advise you, ask what’s on hand—baby bok choy, pea sprouts, Chinese broccoli, or spinach, to eat steamed or sautéed with oyster sauce or…your call. In an early sampling, moo shu chicken with pickled cabbage is too bland, lamb in casserole with sprightly chili sauce too tough, scallion pancake sadly soggy. Since we are the sole over-coddled tenants in the dining room, I can’t begin to imagine how the wokking will fare in a full house. I’ve got my fingers crossed. Still, it’s a thrill to have Don Kehote and his gifted sidekick back, boldly tilting at windmills again.
209 East 49th Street