When Genghis Khan first opened its subterranean downtown doors, we didn't know quite what to expect. What kind of restaurant names itself after a 12th century hero of world domination types, founder of the Mongol Empire? We'd heard of Mongolian barbecue, a hybrid flash-cooking type of cuisine offered at some Chinese restaurants, but that was nowhere to be found on Genghis Khan's extensive menu.
Instead, we found an intriguing mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes, alongside some that were indistinguishable in origin and some that mixed up those three cuisines. A nod, I suppose, to Genghis Khan's efforts to unite all Asian people under one empire -- a grand though relatively short-lived notion in the realms of history.
Whatever the inspiration or intent, dining in downtown's newest Asian restaurant is a unique experience. The place is enormous, for one thing. Not a tiny basement eatery but a vast open room, filled with a large horseshoe-shaped bar, a lounge section complete with big-screen TV and grand piano, and a dining section that could easily seat a party of two-to-three-hundred. Potted artificial plants line the tables, bringing color and light to the space. And on the east wall, the shining face of the restaurant's namesake glows in an ultra-modern dura-tran portrait.
We sampled lunch, dinner and the bar menu and came away generally pleased. (Who, you might ask, are we? A band of lusty eaters, the reviewer included, usually composed of Independent staffers and an occasional loved one or two.) The lunch menu includes a list of 26 specials, most standard Chinese fare, priced from $5.95 to $7.95, which includes soup and rice. All three soups offered -- miso, wonton and hot-and-sour -- were very tasty. The hot-and-sour has generous slices of tofu, not the benign specks you often have to go digging for. The Kung Pao shrimp was zingy with spice, and the Mongolian beef was nicely flecked with dried chile peppers and sweet-hot to the tongue. Only the General Tao chicken disappointed, the promised spiciness being completely non-evident in an otherwise pleasant serving of deep-fried chicken chunks in a sweet-sour sauce.
We loved our appetizers. The Crab Rangoon ($5.95), cream cheese and crab meat, deep-fried in a wonton shell, was wonderfully crunchy and non-greasy, and the Shanghai Spring Roll ($5.95), crisp shredded cabbage and bean sprouts wrapped in rice paper and deep-fried, came with a delicious spicy peanut sauce for dipping.
The surprise at lunch was the Bento Box lunch -- $6.95 for a sauted meat entre, a hefty serving of rice, two fried dumplings and four vegetable rolls (fishless sushi). Here's where Genghis Khan mixes Japanese (the traditional bento presentation in a lacquered box) with Korean. The meat choices are bulgogi (thin sliced marinated beef), teriyaki chicken, chicken marinated in a Korean sauce, or Korean spicy pork. I tried the spicy pork and a co-worker tried the teriyaki. Both were tender and mildly flavored, and the Bento Box turned out to be a real bargain given the gargantuan size of the portions.
My favorite entre was served at dinner, although you can order it at lunch -- Spicy Chicken and Eggplant ($9.95). Stir-fried slices of tender eggplant combined with coarsely ground sauted chicken and scallions in a not-too-hot but back-of-the-throat-tingling spicy garlic sauce. Again, the serving is huge -- in my case, enough for leftover lunch two days in a row.
My fearless taste testers and I ventured to Genghis Khan for a Friday late-afternoon happy hour (well drinks half-price) and gorged on the bar menu. We were served by an incessantly polite and cheerful waitress who suffered through our morphing and shifting crowd, bringing plate after plate of appetizers. The Crab Rangoon was a repeat hit, and we agreed that the Fried Dumplings ($5.95) were tasty and well-prepared. The calamari ($6.95) had a nice bread coating but was tendon chewy, an unfortunate result of over-cooking. The Genghis Khan Mini Patty ($6.95) was a mysterious dish that turned out to be bland but inoffensive -- a thin beef patty, infused with chopped jalapenos, then lightly breaded with egg white and fried. Most surprising were the Green Mussels ($6.95), broiled, plump and tender, and topped with an eye-opening sauce that tasted like a combo of fish sauce and fiercely hot chile oil. Not for the timid, but a savory treat for heat lovers.
Genghis Khan offers the Bento Box at dinner, more food (tempura, pickled radish and salad added) for more money ($8.95 - $11.95) and a choice of salmon as the main dish. The menu also lists a large variety of "special rolls" including salmon skin, tuna, spicy and regular, calamari and grilled salmon. I plan to go back to try the New Zealand Green Lip Mussels ($12.95) from the seafood entre menu -- mussels in black bean sauce served over pan-fried noodles.
Live jazz is featured in the lounge section a couple nights a week. Turns out the owners of Genghis Khan are the same folks who brought you Tao-Tao in the Tiffany Square building where soft live jazz has been part of the weekend fare for years.
We loved the service at happy hour -- our waitress was happy for us to drag together a few tables -- and I've found Genghis Khan to be a nice, quiet place for talking and consultation over lunch or appetizers. The glowing warrior in the corner, as it turns out, watches over a pleasant underground eatery that serves decent Asian fare, all mixed up, but tastefully so.