Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation announced semifinalists for its prestigious culinary awards. New Jersey had four semifinalists this year (finalists will be announced June 13): Steve and Cookie’s in Margate; Joey Baldino of Zeppoli’s in Collingswood; Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House Station in Milford; and Wei Lu of China Chalet in Florham Park. Now, the award noms aren’t guarantees the food at these establishments is great or worth whatever they’re charging, but they’re at least an indication we ought to check these restaurants out.
So it was with high hopes that we visited China Chalet this week. And it’s with full stomachs we left, in full agreement with JBF on their choice.
Chef Wei Lu cooked in Chengdu, Sichuan, for nearly two decades before bringing his cooking to the metro NY area. For the last two decades, almost, he’s operated China Chalet in Florham Park, earning a loyal following of diners, the JBF nom and a review in the New York Times. It’s obvious, with a nose inches away from a plate of smoked duck or sliced flounder in a black bean sauce, that Lu is bringing special, elevated (though not ostentatious) Sichuan cooking to North Jersey. But step outside and nothing indicates such excellence is inside—you’ll find China Chalet tucked in a strip mall next to a Starbucks, a menu posted in the window with dishes averaging about $18.
But everything inside the restaurant indicates great attention to detail; from the well-appointed foyer to the dining area with both diner-style booths and white table clothes. Crisply dressed and attentive servers are friendly and eager to offer suggestions if you ask. The menu is large, and so you ought to go several times to get a full taste of what Lu’s cooking (and, surely, you’ll want to).
Of the nearly dozen dishes we ordered, the standout was the Chengdu Chilled Noodles with Spicy Sesame Vinaigrette. Plump, chewy noodles are tossed in a (moderately spicy) sesame and peanut sauce and topped with slivered scallions. The dish punches so far above its weight class; the thick vinaigrette is rich in umami and peanut flavor, its sweetness cut by acid and the dry sesame. It’s irresistible. And the chilled noodles are a perfect canvas; served cool, every note of nuance in the preparation is perceptible on the tongue.
A nice counterpart to the chilled noodles was the Chinese Cabbage in Sweet and Sour Sauce. Such big flavor in this dish; it’ll remind you of kimchi but milder, which allows subtler floral and citrus notes to hit your tongue. The cabbage itself was crispy and watery, and perfectly slivered to provide substance on each bite.
Too, refinement was on display in Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. The filling was perfectly spiced, and its composition brought soft, crispy and crunchy textures to each bite, to go with a sturdy dumpling that didn’t fall into pastiness as time passed. The dumplings are also a bit larger than others, and woven with a beautiful seam on top.
A dumpling sucker am I, so the Spicy Sichuan Pork Dumplings with Roasted Red Oil were a must. Here was another standout. The dumplings retained a perfect texture throughout eating, and the pork inside was exceptionally tender and savory. Paired with, again, a moderately spicy oil, which brought a boat load of umami, these were close to perfection.
China Chalet has a wide variety of meats, seafood, offal and veggie dishes on the menu. We opted for a smattering of pork spare ribs, skewered teriyaki chicken and shrimp toast.
The ribs fell off the bone, and their glazed bark had a delightful crisp and saturated flavor. One knock on NJ cuisine is that we don’t do barbecue exceptionally well—that said, I could think of a few barbecue-only spots that stand up well, and I’d consider adding these spare ribs to the list.
Chicken teriyaki—not, of course, Sichuan—was different that any other version of the dish around; truly made to Lu’s preference. The outside was crispy, like from a tandoori grill, and the meat instead (slivered breast) was the most tender, juiciest chicken breast I can recall coming across. It required no sauce, but I drizzled on some of that roasted red oil from the pork dumplings and was feeling it.
Shrimp toast came in two large, half-inch-thick triangles. Inside is abundant shrimp meat, which, because China Chalet knows what it’s doing, means big shrimp flavor. The crisp of the fried exterior and the firm texture of the shrimp inside was so satisfying. Dipped in slightly sweet and fruity duck sauce, I could’ve eaten a ton more.
The menu begs to be explored with items like Camphor Smoked Duck, Ginger Scallion Lamb, Sliced Conch Meat with Minced Pork, Crispy Sea Bass with Sweet Vinegar Sauce and Jelly Fish with Sesame Vinaigrette. That ability to explore is what makes China Chalet such a valuable establishment in the Jersey food scene. And, more practically, it also means you can have a variety of experiences there; quick lunch, business lunch, easy dinner, formal dinner—the menu and the upscale comfort atmosphere make it appropriate for any number of occasions. The accolades it’s earned are well-deserved, that’s clear, but most importantly, the food is undeniable.
China Chalet. 184 Columbia Turnpike, Florham Park. chinachalet.com