Originally published on WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 1999
By Eric Asimov
I still remember how excited I was when Pig Heaven opened, 15 years ago. Not only did the kitschy barnyard motif with plump pink prancing piglets on the wall transcend the design clichés of Chinese restaurants, but the food, a combination of Cantonese and Sichuan with a couple of dozen pork dishes, was intriguing and satisfying. I particularly recall a Pig Heaven take out meal one Fourth of July, when my father was grumpily confined to a hospital room overlooking the East River. Thought we could see the celebration going on outside, we were more thrilled by the fireworks on our plates.
But Pig Heaven lost its airy luster over the years. Its founding spirits, David Keh and Ed Schoenfeld, are long gone from the restaurant, and when I last ate there, a year ago, the food seemed to have declined as deeply as the fraying décor. Now that New Yonkers know so much more about authentic regional Chinese cuisine than they did in 1984, Pig Heaven seemed sadly anachronistic.
Now, the good news. Recognizing that resuscitation was necessary, the present owner, Nancy Lee, renovated this summer. The barnyard theme has been replaced by a sleek took, with a handsome bar, almond-shaped hanging lamps and a table of ceramic and carved decorative pigs (the prancing piggies are new exiled to a rear room). Best of all, the food is terrific once again. Ms. Lee said the renovation seemed to have breathed new life into the old chef.
This is not to pretend that Pig Heaven is anything but a Chinese American restaurant, the kind of place that wouldn’t think to offer chopsticks. Its food, still a blend of Cantonese and Sichuan dished bridged by a selection of dumplings, is spiced and presented in ways that please westerners. Yet, because it is fresh prepared with finesse rather that cynicism, it can easily be appreciated on its own terms.
The best place to start is the pork selection, particularly roasted Cantonese dishes like suckling pig ($9.95, small portion; $15.95, large),strips of juicy meat under a layer of moist fat and wafer-thin, deliciously crisp skin. I also loved the white-cooked pork ($7.95), thin little rages of almost hammy pork in a garlic sauce that is powerful but not overwhelming, with the subtlest peppery spicing, which gradually catches up with you.
Pork soong (8.50) is entirely unusual and very good. You place a spoonful of pork minced with rice, peppers and pine nuts on a lettuce leaf, add a little hoisin sauce, then eat it like a Chinese taco. Shredded pork with pickled kohlrabi and julienned bamboo shoots ($11.50) was tasty, too, but like most of the supposedly spicy Sichuan dishes here, it was actually quit mild. I had to try Pig Heaven pork ($11.95), of course, but it turned out to be a classic Chinese-American preparation in which strands of pork are fried until crispy and covered in an overly sweet sauce. It was my least favorite among the pork dishes.
I didn’t stray too far beyond the pork on the extensive menu, but I did find someother treasures, like the moist pieces of hacked chicken ($7.95) in a creamy, slightly sweet sesame sauce and the savory, crispy scallion pancakes ($3.75). Beef with broccoli ($13.95), an old war horse, is nonetheless well prepared. Crisp prawns with walnuts ($17.95), though, were over-poweringly sweet.
The staff at Pig Heaven is friendly, efficient and especially receptive to children, who love the new collection of pigs. They will also love the deserts, a bizarre selection that seems identical to one on the original menu. Frozen praline mousse ($4.50) is sweet and delicious, as is the Peking snowball ($3.95), a cloud of whipped cream concealing a dense sphere of chocolate mousse. Surprisingly, the one thing you will not find at Pig Heaven is fortune cookies.