At the Jue Lan Club, two very compelling but completely unrelated stories lie within its foundation. The first story is that of the Jue Lan Society, a cluster of Chinese artists in the early 1930s who shared a “disaffection of conventionality and a devotion to the avant-garde. ” The name literally means “determination to create change, ” and it is in that spirit and in honor of those artists that chef Oscar Toro’s restaurant is called the Jue Lan Club. The second story concerns the place where this new, elegant restaurant is located: an eighteenth century Episcopal church that once housed the Limelight Disco, one of the hottest and most infamous nightclubs in New York since it was opened in November of 1983. First a disco and rock club, the Limelight became a popular venue for techno and goth music in the 1990s, when it also got the reputation as a drug dealing center. After numerous re-openings following police raids, the Limelight finally closed its doors in 2007. Since then, the entire space has been through several iterations, but as of 2016, the Jue Lan Club resides in the charming space with its entrance on 20th Street. The restaurant itself is, in one word, impressive. With its brick walls, artwork, and stained glass windows, it is not only a place to savor contemporary twists on Chinese cuisine, but also to get the party started. It has several rooms - including the Warhol Room, the 1932 Room, and the Alley - each with a different atmosphere, drink, and food selection to suit different moods and night plans.
Richard and Joanne Lam, the husband and wife duo that run the Bao, are self-declared foodies. They try to do as much research as possible, mainly by visiting other restaurants and ordering from their competitors’ menus. They have got their delicious Chinese cuisine down to a science. “I think we’ve perfected the sauce, ” Richard said, referring to the chili pepper sauce in his favorite dish, the Mapo Doufu. “We went around the city and tasted everybody’s! ” After sampling some myself, I had to agree with him: the sauce made the dish, with a well-balanced level of spiciness. The Manhattan Sideways team was treated to a few more of The Bao’s various dishes. The specialty, the soup dumplings, was met with delight. I watched as full, surprised smiles appeared on the faces of the Sideways members when their mouths filled with warm soup. Richard told us that some customers remark that the dumplings are not authentic, and that Chinese soup dumplings do not contain as much liquid. He has discovered, however, that American customers prefer the soupier version. “Have fun with it and don’t trust the critics, ” he said of creating his recipes. Our team also tried the chili fried chicken, formed into glistening little puff balls, and a scallion and beef Cantonese dish. Richard tries to represent the best dishes from each region of China, therefore allowing him to have a mixture of different cuisines on the menu. He is originally from Hong Kong and Joanne is from Shanghai - together they are able to bring extensive knowledge from their two somewhat separate cultures into this mix. Both Joanne and Richard used to work in the Fashion district, and it is clear to see from the sleek, modern aesthetic of the restaurant that their eye for design has been put to good use in the culinary world. They decided to open their own restaurant after spending years being unable to find good quality modern Chinese food in an enjoyable environment. They opened their first store in Flushing in 2010 before expanding to the East Village in 2014. In the beginning they found that their customers were primarily students and Asian ex-pats, however, in time they have notice more locals frequenting the Bao. Even though their menu now has a fan base, the couple continues to do "their food research. " When I visited, they had recently returned from a culinary trip to Taiwan with the hopes of someday opening another Bao in Midtown.