Offbeat New York

Cha, Chinese and Cake: CK Bar and Restaurant

by Denise Mattia

Once upon a time, long ago in Manhattan, you could count a minimum of two Chinese restaurants on every block. Exotic red with gold lanterns hung from the ceilings of each, and added a splash of color to the rubber-stamped décor of sawdust on black and white tiles, hard straight-back chairs and sturdy tables. The extensive selection on the menus was inexpensive, and the dishes arrived at your table minutes after you placed your order. The local Chinese Restaurant was a boon to the working class who on payday treated the family to a wholesome meal cooked by someone else.

Over the years the eateries became classier. Prices remained comparable, but MSG was added to the fare, which gave most patrons a sinus squeeze among other temporary afflictions. Then cholesterol became a buzzword, followed by the Atkins and no-fat diet. We shunned the heavily battered, deep-fried shrimp, pork and chicken, and turned up our noses at the ubiquitous raw broccoli, healthy in itself, yet unappetizing while swimming in an oily brown sauce. New Yorkers turned to higher-priced sushi and Thai foods. The number of Chinese restaurants dwindled. But they're not gone.

Enter establishments like CK Bar and Restaurant at 936 Second Avenue (50th Street) in New York. General Manager, Kevin C. Ki, has developed ways to serve crisp, yet light and not-at-all oily fare. "Basic Szechuan dishes for instance," Mr. Ki explains, "consist of ingredients that are stir-fried in a wok with oil. At the end of the cooking, different sauces are stirred in." But Mr. Ki adds an extra step to its preparation by removing the ingredients from the oil after cooking, submerging them into hot water to wash away the excess grease, and then patting them lightly with a paper towel. The food is then placed back into a clean wok, into which the hot, piquant sauces are added. A minute later the "lite" fare is ready to be served.

The idea of "lite" doesn't stop with the entree. Displayed prominently in the restaurant is a long glassed-in counter of European-type pastries, cakes and cookies which Mr. Ki admits contain less sugar and fat than most desserts served in New York restaurants. "We have a pastry chef who bakes everything daily on the premises," he adds proudly, "and our prices are half of what you expect to pay elsewhere."

I thought back to the scoop of ice cream served at the end of a Chinese meal when I was young, and then to the fortune cookies and wedges of orange thrust into the center of the table as I grew older. The pastry counter at CK Bar and Restaurant was a welcomed change, yet seemed out of place until I remembered Mr. Ki telling me that he and his family were born in Hong Kong. "Of course," I thought, "Hong Kong was once a British Crown Colony. Tea time. Little cakes. Petit-fours." Cha, Chinese and Cake make perfect sense.

Upon comparing various menus from Chinese restaurants, I found that CK Bar and Restaurant charged 20 percent less for their entrees. Desserts were about 40 percent less than in pastry shops. Takeout and delivery is available. Phone 212-838-6668.

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