Sunday, February 1, 2015

The venerable Buddakan loses a bell

Peking duck buns from Buddakan (Craig LaBan / Staff)
Peking duck buns from Buddakan (Craig LaBan / Staff)

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:

Craig LaBan: Some news in this chat: It's time for a demotion to 2 bells from the 3 bells Buddakan has held since it debuted in 1998 as one of the sparks for Old City's restaurant revolution (and Stephen Starr's ascendancy). It's something I've commented on for quite a while - ever since Starr opened a far more dynamic version of Buddakan in NY several years ago. Unfortunately, the duck buns (in the Crumb Tracker quiz) were among several dishes we ate at a meal last week that left us shaking our heads in disappointment. This perennial "most popular" champ in the annual Zagat guide has apparently not lost its crowd appeal, but, in the many years since my last visit, it has lost its luster for me as a culinary icon.

Any attempt to apply updates to the Old City original, Starr has told me, was always met with much resistance from the restaurant's faithful. I understand "if it ain't broke" (and it's printing money), don't fix it. But the quality and originality of what's being served here have been neglected too long.

I liked the service very much - our server was lovely. And the space is still one of the city's grandest, coolest rooms, a fun place to be. But the unwillingness to let the kitchen evolve has let this temple of flashy late-90s fusion drift toward stale mediocrity. On context alone, Buddakan's been long surpassed by Philly's dynamic dining scene, from the evolution of authentic food in Chinatown (Dim Sum Garden, Sakura) to the fiery Sichuan pots of the many Han Dynasties, as well as Philly's mainstream kitchens, where handmade noodles and dumplings are receiving seriously creative energy (see Cheu Noodles).

Even by its own standards, Buddakan's kitchen was not at its best. Those duck dumplings were full of chewy wads of flabby skin (crunchy is better). The deep-fried spring roll tubes that hold the spicy tuna were less than crunchy (I suspect not very freshly fried). The "soup" dumplings were virtually all burst before they made it out of the basket. The chicken dumplings were rubbery. The lobster fried rice was so dry, it couldn't be eaten with chopsticks (not that many Buddakan diners use chopsticks . . . ) To be sure, there were a few still-good dishes - the classic five-spiced duck breast was our favorite. The Chilean sea bass with squash was fine, but not memorable. The "dip sum" doughnuts were OK. (We've got some serious doughnuts now to put those in perspective, right?)

But this restaurant as a whole - popular as it still may be with the bargain bento box-seeking tourists - is no longer relevant in the city's culinary conversations. I believe Buddakan can be restored to that place with a serious revamp if the will is there. But it's long, long overdue.

Reader: Do you think Jose Garces has overexpanded? Are more of his restaurants going to close?

C.L.: I have no crystal ball, but Jose just lost four restaurants when Revel closed, taking down his quite nice branches of Amada, Village Whiskey, Distrito Taco Truck, and Yuboka with it. However, the closing of those restaurants really had little to do with their performance (which I thought was very good) than with the bigger story that is the demise of the Revel, and the trouble AC's casino-restaurant scene is undergoing now. The onetime casino-resto boom is now a certifiable bust.

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