The Revisit: Buddakan

The first time I ate dim sum in Philly’s Chinatown was on a Sunday morning with a Jewish family and a friend who speaks Cantonese. After we laid out what seemed like a sprawling order, the waitress broke into her native tongue to tell my friend we needed a couple more dishes. They traded a few ideas. My friend is indecisive, and not much of a gourmand to begin with, so after a bit of back-and-forth he deferred to her suggestion. After she left he told us what that was.

“Just get some more dumplings,” she had instructed him. “White people love dumplings.”

It must be for that the same reason, I thought with increasing frequency during a more recent meal of many courses, that white people love Buddakan. Out they came, plate after plate. Not all of them were dumplings, strictly speaking, though the menu offers more than enough varieties to make a meal from those alone. But whether it was Szechuan pork dumplings or edamame ravioli or sticky rice with Dungeness crab, the appeal—if that’s the word for it—was over and over again the same: something easy to recognize and even easier to eat; something guaranteed to slide over the tongue without leaving so much as a trace of anything funky or spicy or unexpected; something safe enough to share with your timid date or pass along to the next birthday-partier down the line without killing the chitchat with a warning that this one actually packs a punch, this one comes at you from a different direction, this one might only be for the thrill-seekers, the brave or the foolhardy.

Any Buddakan server with two nights under his belt, of course, has that chitchat down pat—at least that of first-time diners, and second-timers back again with first-timers in tow. They know to push the dumplings. They have memorized the ramblings about the decor: Dude, where did they get that Buddha? Because man, do white people like stuff like that, too. The bronze belly of a sumo wrestler, the limp eyelids of a stoned 16-year-old, the distended earlobes of a radicalized bike messenger—religious icons are so awesome when nobody’s spoiling the vibe by, like, worshipping them. And even awesomer if nobody around really knows how you’d do it in the first place. Do Buddhists even prostrate themselves before icons? You know, cross themselves, or touch their foreheads to the ground, or whatever the Western religions make you do? Yeah, I’m not really thinking they do either, now that we’re eating dinner in front of this thing. They’re all about the Dalai Lama, anyway. All Eastern and Zen. They probably, like, just walk circles around it. But who cares? How cool is a 10-foot-tall, blissed-out Buddha!

Cooler, no doubt, than a pietà, or a life-size replica of Jesus hanging from the cross (though Mel Gibson may yet prove that otherwise—wouldn’t be the first time an actor got into the restaurant racket, and he seems to knows what white people like, too.) But it’s maybe a little less cool than it seemed 13 years ago, when Stephen Starr first unveiled his Asian-lite resto-lounge.

Buddakan’s menu wasn’t really all that innovative even back in 1998 (which was before my time in Philadelphia, but well after Asian fusion’s heyday). Yet it must have felt a little more exciting then than now, when Han Dynasty is cooking real Szechuan dishes just two blocks down the street, and when you can get a pretty much unbeatable pork-belly bun from the Tyson Bees food truck in West Philly, and every third hoagie you come across these days is a bánh mì.

What is there left to say about Buddakan’s Szechuan pork dumplings, other than that the chili-bereft morsels had about as much zip as an English mince pie? Ditto the bland crab sticky rice, whose (overcooked) grains had lost almost all their chewiness and which, in any case, had been dressed so sparingly with XO sauce that you have to wonder why anyone had wasted the ink promising it on the menu. The edamame ravioli, for their part, were everything a truffle-oil fan could wish for—as long as they wished for a dish as minimally “Asian” as possible.

Buddakan’s opening chef, Scott Swiderski, stepped down about a year ago. Perhaps the love he is said to have inspired among longtime kitchen staff was impossible to replace, and the loss of it explains why so many things I ate here were underwhelming (not to mention oversalted). But I doubt it. Journeyman chef Mark Hellyar has been in place for more than a year, and the best dishes I had—both in conception and execution—bore his stamp. There was a special of escolar sashimi that paid playful homage to Vietnamese beef carpaccio: the fatty fish glistening with citrusy nuoc cham under a confetti of cilantro, crushed peanuts, and deep-fried rice noodles that had puffed up as light and airy as prawn crackers. And Hellyar’s stint in Tokyo is to thank for a refreshing dessert of Japanese baby green peaches—a delicately flavored rarity for which he pays $64 a kilo and then “won’t touch” except to plate the diminutive emerald balls with granola, almond-whipped tofu and a surprising drizzle of olive oil. (José Andrés has done something similar at the Bazaar in Los Angeles, and may have claim to first authorship. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that his version exceeds this one in either subtlety or exoticism.)

But elsewhere, blunt flavors took precedence over finely articulated ones. And too many dishes—many of which have been on the menu forever, in service to “loyal customers” (there are quite a lot of well-aged diners at Buddakan these days)—were just too safe to inspire anything more than a bleary-eyed yawn.

This, let it be said, is by design. Back in January, Hellyar told me, some consultants came in to revamp Buddakan’s offerings, furnishing the dim sum menu with traditional Chinese dishes, but doing so with an eye “not to making American dishes Asian, but making Asian dishes American.” The result is about what you’d predict. Offerings range from the merely inoffensive (“hot and sour” scallops that were neither particularly hot nor sour) to the wrongheaded, like tea-smoked spare ribs whose cloying “hoisin barbecue” sauce completely obliterated the tea smoke’s delicate perfume. (Imagine your date has gone to the expense and trouble of anointing herself with Chanel No. 5, only to spend the evening belching New Coke.) Only occasionally does it work, as with the Vietnamese-style stuffed grape leaves, scented with curry powder—good, if not quite as extraordinary as the ones across town at Meritage.

It didn’t help that the tables were set with the cheapest grade of disposable chopsticks around, the wood on one of mine peeling off into a long splinter upon exit from their sanitary paper envelope. Or that two out of three cocktails (which are not cheap) were so thin that the menu probably should have listed water as the primary ingredient. (The “Awakening,” which brings tequila into enlightened congress with Thai bird chili and pineapple, was delicious and spiced just assertively enough to merit its moniker.) I hope that subpar batting average was an aberration, because white people love their booze even more than their dumplings. Maybe the giant Buddha—which does, after all, symbolize abstention—had cast a temporary spell on a newbie bartender.

Maybe so and maybe not. Either way, it seemed clear, as the dining room filled up on a late-week evening when the weather outside screamed for sidewalk tables or courtyard dining, that the great bronze icon continues to hold many Philadelphians in its thrall. To each his own, I suppose. If you’re after a minimally stimulating feed in maximally stagey surroundings, the sharable portions here make for good group dining, and maybe one or two dishes will capture your attention along with your credit card. But the only spell the Buddha cast on me was the one he actually embodies: liberation from craving.

In The Revisit, Trey Popp makes one visit to an older, smaller or previously reviewed restaurant and reports back on what he finds.