Han Chiang opened his NYC outpost of Han Dynasty this past September, and people have been lining up for it pretty steadily since. Yet in his NYT review dropped yesterday, critic Pete Wells wrote in no uncertain terms that he is "mystified by the popularity of Han Dynasty in Manhattan," and awarded the restaurant no stars. (Quick note on scale: While Craig LaBan recently said a zero-beller per the Inky "has an epic badness to it," zero stars from the NYT translates to "satisfactory.")
A major sticking point for Wells, it seems, was sugar. Three Cup Chicken "seemed to add a cup of sugar" to the traditional recipe (Robert Sietsema made that same crack when he visited during soft opening; sounds serious) resulting in a sauce like "caramel soup." And then, well, there's this:
Han Dynasty's translation of [Sichuan] cuisine has a thick American accent. Many main courses are heavy on sugar, bell peppers and especially MSG, which is often used in great, slashing doses. They come across as close relatives of the kung pao chicken made by the best Chinese takeout in your neighborhood. In fact, your local joint might do this Sichuan crossover hit better than Han Dynasty, whose version was one of the sweetest and least appealing things on the menu.
But there were some high points, luckily, including "unusually friendly service" (guess Han wasn't there that night) and a few standout starters:
Apart from the dan dan noodles, which needed more snap from black vinegar, the appetizers were a less cloying crew, their seasoning closer to the Sichuan spirit. Cold rabbit with peanuts in chile oil, with the thrilling, classic combination of red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, made my lips vibrate like a tuning fork. Dry pepper chicken wings had all the crunch, complexity and aromatic power I'd missed in the cumin lamb.
Previously, Chiang's East Village spot garnered more enthusiastic reviews from Time Out NY (who declared that the "monster spiced chicken wings are the new standard-bearers" and thought "the much-talked-about dandan noodles justify the hype") and from New York's Adam Platt in October. In his review, Platt called out "a faithful, fiercely spicy version of that old Sichuan warhorse dan dan noodles," "impeccably balanced sauces," and chile oil that's made from scratch ("unlike lots of Sichuan establishments around town").