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NYC

Review

CheLi

CheLi 浙里

$$$$
CheLi

Take a moment to picture the anarchic realm of St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. See the puffing clouds of blueberry vapes, the exodus of NYU juniors toting packs of pore-minimizing face masks, and the folding chair in front of Mamoun’s where a man dressed like the year 1983 asks if you’re interested in adding CBD to your falafel.

Now, imagine the opposite: the peaceful chortle of a waterfall, friends clinking Tsingtao bottles under indoor thatched roofs, wafts of beautifully smoked fish and braised pork slick and glossy in a caramelized soy sauce. CheLi, a serene, banquet-style Shanghainese restaurant, exists just a staircase away from the belly of St. Marks, but you’d never know it once you’re inside.

New York has plenty of places to eat Shanghainese food with a group (you could walk 50 steps from CheLi and ride off into the sunset with a bunch of xiao long bao at The Bao). Even still, we can’t think of many restaurants overtly spotlighting food from the Jiangnan region surrounding Shanghai — an area known for its seafood-dominant cuisine that incorporates plenty of sugar, soy, and Chinese rice wine from the Zhejiang province.

Our favorite ordering method at CheLi relies mainly on fish and crustaceans, like meaty Atlantic blue crab soaked in floral Shaoxing wine and sticky slices of carp that are marinated and fried until they taste smoky. But there’s plenty of delicious pork to be eaten, too — the stacks of red braised pork belly coated in a dark soy sauce, in particular, are requisite ordering. And don’t leave CheLi without trying some pillowy-fried tofu bites. Lightly dusted in mala spice and black sesame seeds, each cube crunches then squishes. We’d sneak a plate of these into a movie theater.

CheLi

A night at CheLi could just as easily zhuzh up your average weekday as it could your next big group celebration. The energy feels festive, even on random Tuesdays in the wintertime when everyone silently wishes they lived on a different coast. Once you see the room, it won’t be hard to understand why: the place is decorated to the nines. You’ll sit underneath a hay-thatched roof with lanterns and fake dried pork sausage hanging from the wooden beams above.

Bring a couple friends for your next group dinner, whether there’s an occasion to celebrate or not. Just be aware that this place gets busy and only takes reservations for groups larger than five. (We’ve happily passed hour-and-a-half wait times at Sake Bar Decibel around the corner.) Follow our food rundown for a compilation of all of the hits we’ve tried during our meals here. Once your table is overloaded with the platonic ideal of sweet, delicate seafood and savory pork, you’ll be all set up for one of your favorite NYC Chinese meals in recent memory.

Food Rundown

CheLi
Smoked Fish

If you’re currently picturing a tiny plastic tub of whitefish you might buy at a Jewish deli on Houston Street, know that CheLi’s smoked fish is entirely different. It’s the dark brown, syrupy sauce that makes these marinated-then-fried filets taste smoky, rather than any smoking process. Cold and slightly crisp on the outside, these filets are shaped like little hearts, which makes sense because that’s where they live now. (In our hearts.)

CheLi
Fried Tofu Bites

What seems like an endless supply of fried tofu with pillowy centers. Your tongue will alert you to a light snowfall of mala spice on these tiny cubes, and that’s partly what makes them scientifically addictive. You’re going to have to force yourself to stop eating them. Or don’t, and just eat what is essentially spiced popcorn tofu for dinner.

Hannah Albertine
Braised Pork Belly

One of Shanghai’s more famous dishes, CheLi’s version comes with starchy rice balls in a thick soy-based sauce. This dish is sweet, rich, and meaty at the same time, not completely unlike the inhabitants of Equinox’s weight room.

Wine-Soaked Atlantic Blue Crab

There’s a bunch of crab on the menu at CheLi, but we think this particular dish remains unmissable. Commit to getting a little messy, and pick up one of the four inner sections with your hands. That way, you can suck out all of the fragrant, Shaoxing-wine-sopped meat. Served in its shell with the top slightly ajar, it’s as if this crab is tipping its hat to you and saying, “Yes, I know I am delicious. You’re welcome.”

Hannah Albertine
Steamed Prawns With Glass Noodles

The prawns in this dish are butterflied so that they look like they’re doing the splits on top of a pile of slippery glass noodles. There’s plenty of garlic and scallions at play, notably present in a potent puree that you’ll want in every single bite. Is anyone shocked that sweet prawns, garlic puree, and springy glass noodles make for a good combination? Alright then.

Xiao Long Bao

These pork-filled soup dumplings certainly rank higher than your average xiao long bao, but you don’t have to order them with the same fervor as you would the other dishes. If xiao long bao seems like a non-negotiable table priority, great. If not, press on.

Song Dynasty Steam Bun

Imagine the airy texture of cotton candy inside a steamed bun with the surface area of a painter’s palette. The bun itself doesn’t have a ton of flavor (it’s not filled with anything), but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to pull apart and stuff into your pie hole.

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