There's been surprisingly little buzz about Tony's latest endeavor, a small plates lounge style place, but given how much I adore Lao Beijing, of course I had to check it out. I get the sense that it's still very much a work in progress, and I'm curious to see how it develops. So, here are my thoughts:
The interior is swank. It's classy, it's mellow - it's a sexy little lounge. Good music, too. Everything looks fantastic, down to the chopsticks. Very nice.
The menu is much smaller than his other spots, and more elegant. However, I found myself somewhat confused - I was expecting this to be a small plates place, with different food from the other restaurants, and, um, lower prices. A lot of the menu is familiar to anyone who eats at Lao Beijing, and it's only a dollar or two cheaper. So we asked our server how many small plates we should be getting, and he clarified that the plates aren't actually that small. He said that 4 should be good for three people, especially if you add some appetizers. That's what we did, and we were still somewhat peckish at the end. Though we're also accustomed to stuffing ourselves like gluttons and being utterly immobile after any Chinatown dinner, so this was probably much better for us.
Still though... I was somewhat disappointed to realize how much of the menu was basically the same. Aside from, perhaps, the House Specialties - but I can't really afford any of those. HOWEVER - my boyfriend pointed out that the food isn't actually the same. To begin with, the presentation is seriously classed up. It's not a pile of food on a plate - it's elegant. It looks like something you'd pay a lot of money for. A lot of people may not appreciate that, or may find it obnoxious ("it's the same food, it's just that someone took an extra minute to pile it - less of it - onto a plate") - and this is not the restaurant for them. But it is a relevant point. Boyfriend was also of the opinion that the food was prepared with a bit more care. Of course, the presentation contributes to that impression, but I think he's right. It's a little more, hmmm, fancy? subtle? on point? I dunno. Less grease, more spice - we got the kung pao chicken Chengdu style, and there were little grains of herbs and chunks of garlic, and much less sauce, as opposed to the usual lovable pile.
The bill was a bit more, but not nearly as much more as you'd expect from the upgrade in classiness. Overall, to be honest, I still prefer Lao Beijing. I appreciate the idea behind fancy, upscale Chinese food (Opera strives to do the same), but ultimately, I'm just kind of less interested in paying more and having it be classed up. But I'm glad it exists. I do think that Lao You Ju will ultimately fare better if it goes further in the direction of small plates - make the plates smaller, so that people order a lot more of them, and drop the prices by a buck or two. $4-$5 plates will add up fast, but they won't feel that expensive. And it'll make the dining experience more noticeably different from what you can get at Lao Beijing - the possibility of not only having everything classed up a notch, but also of getting MORE dishes, which is something I always kind of want to do, simply because I love them all so much and have a hard time picking between them. If I could have a real small plates adventure, especially in that lovely room, I would definitely be coming back more regularly.