In and among the strip malls of our state highways lurk oases of culinary authenticity. One such, on Route 46 in Clifton, is Chef Yang, which opened this year. Its namesake chef, “Jack” Yang, presides at the sister restaurant in Manhattan. On Route 46, chef Chen Dong, 46, will surprise those who associate Szechuan cooking with relentless heat. The flavors in his best dishes are nuanced and layered, the menu large and diverse.
The windowless, one-story building creates a strangely subterranean feel with its white-stone, grotto-like interior. Clever acoustic design lets you hear conversations at your table, even when the place is full. Unfortunately, the smooth jazz soundtrack creates a somewhat geriatric ambience.
Nearly everything we tried from the New Sichuan Cuisine section of the menu was fantastic, but two dishes perfectly exemplified Dong’s subtlety. One was Chengdu fish and pickled vegetable: a huge bowl of tender flounder fillets, exotic mushrooms, pickled mustard greens and ginger in a piquant broth. The other was pumpkin with salted egg yolk: delicious chunks of kabocha squash with a micron-thin, tempura-like coating and a savory egg-yolk glaze.
Our favorite appetizers were cold dishes. House-made Szechuan pickled vegetables were wildly fresh tasting; cold bean curd with scallion sauce was bright and salty, perfect with a cold beer. Among main dishes, shredded pork with dry bean curd was excellent, with its clear treble note of fragrant Chinese celery. The warm chili glow of broiled whole fish with spicy sauce was pleasingly offset by cool, crisp bean sprouts and starchy boiled peanuts. But the fish itself, a tilapia, seemed a bit scrawny for $29.95.
Mapo tofu is a signature Szechuan dish, and the version served here is surprising. Instead of the typical garlicky, spicy red oil, Dong’s version reveals savory depth from deeply browned bits of ground pork and isn’t particularly spicy, except for a bit of what the Chinese call ma la, the tingle of Szechuan peppercorns.
Similarly, the house-special braised pork belly (that’s its name; it’s on the menu) has an almost Cantonese-like sweet red sauce and the rare, delicious inclusion of gingko nuts, their unique texture midway between chestnut and macadamia. Dong’s placement of a dish like this under New Sichuan indicates an intent to display the range and balance of Szechuan, avoiding the hot-vs.-hotter arms race of many such menus.
But if hot is what you came for, don’t worry—the Chonqing diced chicken with chili peppercorn will have you gasping for more rice, and the dry-sautéed pig intestine with dried red chili is the single most spicy dish I have ever been served in a restaurant. For those who love the chewy porkiness of pig intestines, these were perfectly prepared. If you wish, the kitchen will gladly tone down the spice to non-nuclear levels.
Unfortunately, most of what is praiseworthy at Chef Yang is in the New Sichuan section. In the appetizer section, wontons in red oil were gummy; black fungus in vinegar tasted like it had spent too long in the refrigerator; and oxtail/ox tripe in chili oil (marked on the menu with two red chili symbols) was weirdly bland. A section devoted to stone-pot casseroles also produced varying results. Crispy chicken with garlic sauce was like a timid version of General Tso’s chicken—soggy meat in a sweet sauce in desperate need of acid and heat.
On the other hand, the pea-sprout casserole with dry shredded scallops in egg sauce turned out to be fresh snow-pea shoots in a broth made with dried scallops, topped with a floating, half-poached egg. It was one of the best presentations of these delicate greens I’ve ever had.
Overall, however, Chef Yang needs to reach these heights more consistently across all its menu sections.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Chinese - Szechuan
Price Details:Appetizers, soups, noodles, fried rice, $7.95–$22.95; dim sum, $3.95–$9.95; casseroles, hot pot, $13.95–$28.95; entrées, $13.95–$38.95
Service:Courtly, efficient, pleasant
Wine list:Full bar, dated cocktails, five imported bottled beers, wine by the glass or bottle