A venerable elder statesman of the Chinese food culture has arrived in Battery Park City. Wellman Wu, proprietor of the legendary Peking Duck House restaurants on Mott Street and East 53rd Street, recently opened Ningbo, at 21 South End Avenue, overlooking South Cove.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, when Chinese food was considered a generic, downscale commodity — usually served on formica tables, under fluorescent lights, and best described by words like “cheap” and “fast” — Mr. Wu revolutionized the business with lavish decor and spectacle (at both of his uptown restaurants, the chef comes to each table to carve the signature dish) and authentic regional Chinese cuisine that turned finicky skeptics into devoted regulars.
He accomplished this by assembling a crack squad of chefs and wait staff, and then keeping them. “Atmosphere and service are very important, but these are possible only when the team is exactly right,” Mr. Wu reflects. “More than 70 percent of the staff at our other two restaurants have been there for more than a decade.”
“It is not enough to serve wonderful food only part of the time,” he says. “Our customers demand consistency. This is especially true for Americans. And only with the right team can we live up to that expectation.”
Ningbo will be a departure of sorts for Mr. Wu, whose previous restaurants have showcased northern Chinese cuisine. “This is the food of southern China,” he says of the new restaurant’s menu. “The Szechuan style has a richer, more accented flavor.”
This is evident is several signature dishes, such as Szechuan-style fish, flavored with spicy beans; salt and pepper shrimp; dried string beans, and smoked pork fried rice — with ham that is cured and smoked on the premises. Each is a gentle riot of texture, flavor and aroma, with subtle spices providing a nuanced counterpoint to the straightforward taste the dish would usually conjure.
“My family’s ancestral home is the Ningbo region,” Mr. Wu says, recalling the coastal province outside of Shanghai, on the East China Sea. The name translate as “serene waves,” which were evoked for Mr. Wu the first time he looked at South Cove from the restaurant’s windows. “This kind of location and scenery cannot be bought or created,” he notes.
“I am in my 70s, with three grown children and six grandchildren” he observes. “I already have two successful restaurants and a thriving grocery business, so I was semi-retired. But when I saw this beautiful space, I knew we could create a wonderful restaurant here. And even at my age, I still have some confidence and energy.”
Still, the challenges were considerable. “There aren’t many good Chinese restaurants in Lower Manhattan,” he observes, “and that might seem like an opportunity. But there’s actually a reason for this. Fewer and fewer young Asian men are willing to go into the food business. This makes it very difficult to launch an authentic Chinese restaurant. It is only because we have a team that has been working together for decades that we are able to do this, when so many others fail.”
“They key to our success in Chinatown and in Midtown has been to build a relationship with customers, so that they want to keep coming back,” Mr. Wu observes. “So the goal here is to do the same, even though this menu comes from a different part of China. If we can make this a neighborhood designation for people who care about genuine Chinese food, then we will succeed.” Mr. Wu notes that the location, which was home to a pair of earlier Asian restaurants (Liberty View and Malaysian Kitchen) with which he had no connection, will also be an asset. “My plan is to build on that existing clientele by doing a better job,” he says.
But before he could begin, Mr. Wu needed a clean break with the past. For this, he called upon traditional Chinese spiritualists, who conducted a “dragon ceremony” in the space of the former restaurant at 21 South End Avenue, complete with spreading cabbage around the room. “In traditional Chinese culture, cabbage represents money, which is another way of summoning good luck,” Mr. Wu explains.
“So much of success in business is about luck,” he adds. “But this will probably be my last restaurant, so I am determined to make it my best.”