Sep 19, 2012
The second day I was in New Jersey fell on a saturday, and happened to be the saturday that Meatopia fell on. I really, really wanted to go to Meatopia, especially considering the impressive roster of high caliber chefs who were cooking there, including the chef I worked for before moving to Florida, Michael Toscano who is now chef of Perla. My brother Louis and his friend Phivo said they were going to attend so I planned to go with them, but when saturday came, sporadic rain and the fact that none of us really had $150 to spend on tickets kind of rained on our parade, semi-literally.
Instead, Louis asked me if I wanted to go to dinner somewhere in NYC with him and Phivo, and suggested a new restaurant in the Lower East Side called Yunnan Kitchen that had been stirring up a buzz. Like many hip LES restaurants, they serve small plates and don't take reservations. The cuisine is based on the cooking of China's Yunnan Province, although the chef is a white guy and the servers are kind of hipster-esque. To be honest, this is the first time I have really been to a restaurant focused on Chinese cuisine that wasn't run by Chinese or presented in a somewhat Chinese format. I have also never eaten Yunnan cuisine so it would be ignorant for me to try to gauge authenticity.
As I mentioned earlier, the dishes are served in almost what is tapas portions, which quite contrasts to the family style portions. Taking this into consideration, the dishes would probably be considered pricy if compared to other Chinese restaurants. However, the pricing is more than modest for a hip bustling LES restaurant, and even eating at a typical Japanese ramen restaurant in the area would be comparably priced or more expensive. In addition to beer and wine, there is a fancy tea list with prices from 5 to 8 bucks... which is great for a connoisseur but kind of a bummer for a guy like me who is used to drinking copious amounts of tea with Chinese food for free or close to it. Fortunately there were $4 Tsingtaos to cheer me up.
The first dish that came out was a cold dish of charred eggplant with sawtooth herb, peanuts and crushed chiles. Sawtooth herb is apparently a relative of cilantro, and that's what it tasted like... in fact further research reveals that this is the same herb referred to as culantro in Latin American cooking. This dish was good, although the seasoning was muted probably partly due to it being cold.
A salad of mint, frisee and cherry tomatoes came out next. Apparently salads are common in Yunnan cuisine, although they are almost completely absent from the kind of (mostly southern) Chinese cuisine I'm familiar with, mainly because traditional Chinese medicine frowns upon most use of cold and raw food, and because the way vegetables were traditionally fertilized (I won't go into detail) made them unsafe to eat raw. It is interesting how different the eating habits can be in different provinces and it's definitely something I plan to do more research on. The salad was pretty much as simple as it looks, really the defining factor was the dressing which was almost medicinal tasting. A review on Grub Street reveals it to be "mountain-flower oil"... whatever that is. The salad was good as a palate cleanser, but could have probably benefitted from a pinch of salt.
Fried pork belly with mint and Yunnan spices was equally simple... usually when called "fried pork belly" on a menu it's braised or cooked confit and then crisped up, but this was more like limp bacon. I'm not sure if it was cured, but it was as salty as bacon. It might as well just been called limp unsmoked bacon... and there's nothing wrong with that because I'm kind of a fan of limp bacon (not on a BLT but there's a time and a place). The Yunnan spices which appear on many dishes here contain copious amounts of Szechuan peppercorn and I happen to find the numbing effect and astringent taste especially pleasant, but I'm sure it's not for everyone.
Shredded chicken with tamarind and crispy taro was not only the first dish with some sort of complexity to it, but also the best dish flavor-wise. There was a puree of taro underneath as well with a few slices of lotus root buried in there (which I'm not sure what purpose they served). The puree and chicken were both well seasoned and along with the crunch of the crispy taro there was plenty of textural contrast.
Skewers of charred shishito peppers and fingerling potatoes which were seasoned with the ubiquitous Yunnan spice were simple but good. I'm not sure where they got these shishitos from because they were way hotter than most I've had. I also wonder how far from traditional this dish is considering charred shishitos are trending heavily right now (transcending any one particular cuisine) and I haven't heard of Asian cuisines using fingerling potatoes much either. Tasty regardless.
Chinese sausage fried rice with seasonal mushrooms and greens tasted pretty much how it looks, which is to say, good. Maybe not the best fried rice ever, but good. And Chinese sausage is always good. Always.
Ham rice cakes with chilies and tomatoes was a pretty interesting dish. I've never had this sort of sliced rice cake, probably because I haven't eaten cuisine from this region, but I did recently see bags of them at Oceanic Supermarket. While the rice cakes taste pretty much how they look, this dish had a lot of vinegar of some sort or possibly some other fermented condiment that gave it a pretty distinct flavor. It grew on me.
The next was a special, green tomatoes with charred garlic and poppy seeds, the recipe for which is posted on Grub Street here. It was a good salad, not mind blowing in itself, but for a guy who was eventually going to go back down south and fry breaded green tomatoes at work, seeing how well they can be used raw did cause one of those cartoon lightbulbs to appear above my head. They were super crunchy and slightly tart, texturally very reminiscent of cucumber.
On a sad note, there was also a chicken wing special of some sort which there was supposedly one order left of. We ordered it along with everything else all at once, and the bartender (we dined at the bar) had memorized the order as he heard it from us before ringing it in. A decent amount of time passed after all the other dishes came and we saw no chicken. When asked he ran to the kitchen pretty quickly and then informed us that unfortunately when he rang in the order, the last order had already been ordered. Little white lies don't work so well when they aren't believable... he obviously forgot to ring in the order for us. Anyways we ordered lamb meatballs which he suggested which seemed a lot more traditional and were seasoned well with salt as well as Yunnan spices. Meatballs containing the proper amount of seasoning and fat are rarely bad.
The closest thing to dessert they serve at Yunnan Kitchen is a complimentary cookie at the end of the mean, which is petite four sized, so we decided to walk to il laboratorio del gelato which opened across the street from Katz's Deli. I tasted a few flavors including a Guinness gelato that was really bitter and a pink peppercorn tarragon that was a little wacky, and a few other safer flavors that I can't really remember. I've worked with their product at restaurants in NYC and it's definitely good stuff.
Walking through the LES you realize how many places there are down there now and how close together they are. This funny signage was in the window of a place that I guess serves sausage across the street from wd-50.
In summary, I'm not sure how I feel about this sort of translation of Chinese cuisine into the young and chic dining scene. On one side of the coin, you could get triple the amount of even better fried rice in Chinatown for the same price. On the other side, you would probably never find a dish like the shredded chicken with taro (although that is only one dish), you wouldn't be able to sample as many dishes because of the portion size (although the pricing not being significantly less per dish would kind of negate that being an advantage), and you wouldn't be in a place with as hip a vibe and already in the swinging heart of the LES (just in case you plan on sticking around the area for the rest of the night, as there is more late night trouble to stir up around here than in Chinatown... although cab fare from there to here wouldn't be much). The food is good and the vibe is great, and I would love to see Chinese cuisine translated into this format much more often (which seems likely to happen), but with great Chinese food in abundance in just the next neighborhood over, it's hard to lure me anywhere outside of Chinatown for Chinese food. While I'm in NYC at least.
79 Clinton Street
Lower East Side, NY