3671 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
While everybody has been obsessing over the protracted buildout process for Lucky Liu’s (Alex Thao’s new Downtown Chinese restaurant), the restaurateur quietly renovated Celadon, his Hillcrest Thai restaurant. Reborn as French Concession (3671 5th Avenue) after the style of early-twentieth-century French Shanghai, the new-on-the-inside restau specializes in dim sum and craft beer under the supervision of Hong Kong chef Andrew Kwong, which could be a game changer for fans of the famous Chinese small-plate meals. In the past, looking for dim sum meant a trip to Convoy, and more driving than some people want to do for a substantial lunch. Now, dim sum’s just a neighborhood away.
The remodel has the dining room looking good. 1930s and ‘40s Chinese and Chinatown style inspires the interior, more in terms of color palette and Art Deco touches than anything else. Think lacquered elegance instead of dragons and fountains. Celadon, which was mostly excellent by virtue of superior staff, was just a bit too Liberace for its own good, and the classier look of French Concession is an improvement. Also, the place is huge — 3500 square feet — and the lighting drops down past moody, through dim, and straight into darkness.
In the past, Celadon’s well-trained waitstaff repeatedly nailed it with professional service far beyond the restaurant’s pay grade. The vast majority of the staff left rather than work at the new restau, but there’s no reason to expect the new servers will be any less well trained.
The expansive menu incorporates fried, steamed, and baked dim sum staples from mild steam buns to wild chicken feet. Simple dishes like Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce justify an $8 price tag by large portions, though most items hover in the $5.50 range. Shrimp, naturally, makes things costlier.
If there’s one must-try dish, it’s the steamed egg custard buns. A mixture of vanilla ice cream, egg yolk, and powdered custard cooks into a kernel of sweet pudding surrounded by tender steamed dough. Cut into a cross section, the yellow custard and white bun even resembles an egg. Fancy that!
Favorites of American-style Chinese cooking (orange chicken, lo mein, chow fun, etc.) comprise a short menu of main dishes. French Concession isn’t out to blow any minds, but the preparations all seem more careful and a degree finer than the average Chinese takeout joint.
Thus far, French Concession has flown under the radar in the wake of its quiet transformation, but it’s certainly worth a trip, partly because the restaurant dispenses with ostentation in favor of a quiet quality, and partly because it bring something new to Hillcrest, legitimately bettering the neighborhood’s dining scene.