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60 West 53rd Street
China Grill 1 Chinese Midtown West

Jeffrey Chodorow, the owner of the famed chain of China Grill restaurants, had an interesting journey on the way to becoming a renowned restaurateur. Born in the Bronx in 1950, he moved at an early age to Miami with his mother. Impassioned by business management, he graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and went on to receive a law degree. Jeffrey served as an attorney in Pennsylvania and Florida for some years.

Although he dislikes the word "foodie," Jeffrey shared with me that he had always been fascinated by food and restaurants. More specifically, he was infatuated with the daunting logistical task involved in managing a restaurant: “It always astounded me how you could go to these restaurants and how they would serve hundreds of people a night and still you could reliably count on them to give you a good meal.” The “mechanics and the art and the science of food culture” eventually prompted Jeffrey to open the first China Grill in Midtown Manhattan, modeled after a Chinese restaurant in California that he admired.

Jeffrey admitted to me that he first looked at managing a restaurant as a hobby. It did not take him long, however, to size up the challenge that stood in front of him, especially because Midtown Manhattan was (and continues to be) a difficult place to stay in business. Apparently, several restaurants had failed in the spot that Jeffrey chose for China Grill.

There were a few pivotal decisions that Jeffrey made to help China Grill fight against the bankruptcy tendency. First, he added a westbound entrance to take advantage of the traffic that the nearby Museum of Modern Art naturally created. Then, he hired a top design company to create a unique and appealing atmosphere. Finally, he put together a strong publicity campaign for the restaurant while making the then-puzzling decision to only be open for dinner. Jeffrey mentioned this with a chuckle as he went on to tell me how several people would gather outside the restaurant at lunch time and hear, bewildered, that they needed to come back for dinner. The anticipation and buzz that this psychological maneuver generated was so significant that once the restaurant did open for lunch six months later, China Grill had become one of the hottest food joints in the city.

It did not take long for Jeffrey to decide to open another location in Miami, where it was rapturously received. Despite the restaurant’s success, Jeffrey was dissatisfied with the perception that this was just a “Chinese” restaurant, or worse, that it was merely a clone of a Chinese restaurant. “I didn’t want to be locked in this mold,” he continued. Determined to be innovative, Jeffrey hired a new chef with whom he created dishes that included ingredients that one would not encounter in other Chinese restaurants. Hence dishes like wasabi mashed potatoes, lobster pancakes, and peking duck salad were added to the menu. Jeffrey summed up the impact of this change in the words of a critic's review: China Grill went “from a clone to a classic.” Jeffrey believes that they effectively “globalized” the menu with staple ingredients from other cuisines, but always with an Asian influence.

Fast forward twenty years later to 2016, and Jeffrey admitted that he still has a difficult time changing some of the items on the menu, as his customers quickly voice their displeasure. However, today he has reduced the size of some of the dishes in an effort to encourage people to share a variety of menu options rather than limiting themselves to one or two main courses. The Manhattan Sideways team got to experience a selection of dishes first hand. We tried crispy wasabi shrimp skewers on a dais of pink himalayan sea salt, spicy and vibrant scallion beef dumplings, and lobster pancakes with earthy mushrooms. The spicy salmon nigiri balanced on a fried rice patty was a team favourite, as was the coconut black rice with mango and greens. We also sampled the decadent Chilean Sea Bass with truffle, which Tom, the photographer, called "one of the most delicious fish dishes I've ever had," and a bowl of crunchy, wholesome Chinese broccoli. In addition to these signature plates, I know from personal experience how varied and tasty the restaurant's vegetarian selection is.

As each dish came out, I was impressed with the skill and efficiency of the members of China Grill's staff. During past visits, I have always been impressed that the restaurant can accommodate seemingly endless amounts of people without appearing overwhelmingly crowded or busy. I spoke to Emily Roth, the General Manager about it: "Our staff makes me really proud," she gushed. I learned that some of them have been with the restaurant since the very beginning and that a few have made their mark on customers' hearts. For example, Emily mentioned that Wen, one of the food runners, is often requested by regulars. "People are so loyal," she said with a smile. She is always happy to hear diners share things like, "We had our first date here," or "I came here when I was pregnant with my first child." China Grill has become a place where people celebrate milestones.

I met Kevin, the beverage director, who brought out a few of the restaurant's signature cocktails to complement the food. "I try to make it all very fresh," he told me, indicating the fresh fruit and herbs listed as ingredients for the cocktails. He also develops drinks that match the seasons. For example, he brought us a shizu watermelon drink, which was designed for the summer. The team also tried a nuanced "Thaiquila" and a fruity Raspberry Bramble, which had just the right amount of sweetness. Kevin topped it all off with a gin-based honey and mint lemonade, which was delightfully refreshing.

In my conversation with Jeffrey, he mentioned that there is irony inherent in the restaurant’s name, given the non-dichotomous style of his dishes. “It’s not Chinese, it’s not Grill, but you’ll have a great time” he said, laughing. I agree wholeheartedly: the food and the service have been nothing short of superb on the several occasions that I have dined at China Grill.

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