What happens when you fill a cavernous 16,000 square-foot space beneath Chelsea Market with chandeliers the size of a West Village studio and faux tapestries as tall as the foyer of a Beverly Hills mansion? You think you get a nightclub? Not quite. Surprisingly, with the help of Stephen Starr, you get a smart restaurant cooking Chinese food better than it has to be.
When the idea for a large group dinner at Buddakan was first proposed a few weeks ago, one of our party thought we were discussing a trip to “Buddha-Con,” a Comic-Con-like event for Buddhist enthusiasts. She still readily agreed, probably because I’ve suggested going to stranger things in the past. And while I have no idea if such a convention actually exists, I imagine Buddakan would be a good home for it, so large and vibrant is the space.
Plus, if I had to take a guess, the only other place to find a staircase that rivals the regal, towering set of steps at Buddakan is probably at the excessively garish country estate of a Malaysian billionaire. Or perhaps the Time Warner Center. Regardless, at Buddakan, two of these stairs lead to a show-stopping, golden-hued, glorious dining room that is somehow the stage for thoughtfully composed fusion dishes.
Many of the dishes take inspiration from traditional flavors and techniques, particularly the Dim Sum, which is made by local Chinatown cooks before every service. The Cantonese Spring Rolls with chicken and shrimp and the Tuna Tartare Spring Rolls with crispy shallot and ponzu should kick off every meal, surprising the palette with a refreshing, plump bite inside a crispy shell.
Even with these nods toward tradition, however, there is still creativity in the cooking. The Short Rib with mushroom chow fun and asian pear was rich but freshened delightfully with the crispiness of the fruit, and the Alaskan Black Cod with chili eggplant and a black bean relish was tender enough to melt on first bite. The Mao Poe Tofu with minced pork and red chili was fiery and rich, with more texture and flavor previously thought possible from the smooth soybean curd.
Because the restaurant is perfect for a girls night out, the Peking Duck Fried Rice with shiitake mushrooms and crispy shallot, though perhaps the most ordinary item on the menu, may have also made more than one appearance at our table, as did the flirtatiously titled cocktails, Fate and Charm, both made from fruity liqueurs, fresh fruit, and prosecco. If Buddakan is going to look like a festival-meets-nightclub, it might as well serve drinks worthy of one, too.
All of these plates are meant to be shared family style, and the charming staff excels at portioning every plate to the size of the group. Sex and the City fans may also appreciate Buddakan even more, remembering it as the glittering site of Carrie Bradshaw’s engagement party. If one is somehow able to see further than 10 feet in the deliriously dim labyrinth of rooms spreading out from the main dining room, Miranda and Samantha and their posse of 30- or 40-something friends may still be spotted clinking cocktails next to a high school graduation party. Festive and fabulous, there doesn’t seem to be an age limit to enjoying Buddakan, although I wouldn’t necessarily rush to take my more cultured mother when she’s visiting from out of town.
The theatrically-sized space can seat 275 very spaciously, with room for about 50 more around the shadowy bar with low tables and cushions perfect for tucking away in the darkness. It’s a wonder then, in a space that relishes in such excess, that the food is restrained, and the service charming and personable. That’s truly the wonder of Buddakan: while the attitude of the space itself lends to playing dress up, the staff smiles and promises excellent service to those coming just as they are.