The first reviews of San Franciso’s Mission Chinese Food outpost here in NYC were written by professional critics and were, by my estimation, universally adoring. The New York Times said James Beard Rising Star Chef award-winner Danny Bowien “does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it”. The blog reviews that came soon after were less excited. I read complaints about the prices, which range from $4 for the vinegar peanuts to $14.50 for the mapo la mian. I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly spicy. Then I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly bland. I didn’t know what to think, so I thought I’d just go find out for myself.
Since I’m a woman who loves making and having reservations, I was pleased to find that Mission Chinese Food takes a very, very limited number of reservations per night. The website begins accepting them at 10 a.m. each morning, and 5 seconds later, they’re all gone. I had a few mornings of absolutely no luck and one morning where I was offered a reservation but then double-checked my calendar and lost it before I actually got a spot for a Wednesday night.
Walking in the door, which itself was almost too tiny for a person to fit through, we were underwhelmed by the little room we found ourselves in. There was a counter, a cash register, a window into the kitchen, and this backlit menu with only slightly better photos than your generic Chinese take-out joint:
After an uncomfortable five-minute wait, though, we were led through a hallway past the kitchen to the dining room, which was like a whole different world. I felt like a soldier in Vietnam in the 60s, off duty for the night and looking to forget my troubles with help from the cocktail-slinging bartender in the corner. I have no idea why I thought Vietnam, since there were Chinese lanterns everywhere and a huge dragon snaking through the beams of the ceiling, but I kept expecting the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to start playing. The whole place glowed red, and the servers were in tank tops and frayed denim shorts, appropriate to the Lower East Side location. In a few words, it was really fuckin’ cool.
My boyfriend knew he wanted the pig tails, and I knew I wanted the thrice-cooked bacon, but everything else was off-the-cuff. Here’s what we went with:
Beer brined sichuan pickles, with Chinese cabbage, carrot, chili oil, peanut, and sichuan pepper, and Beijing vinegar peanuts with smoked garlic, anise, and rock sugar. I expected the pickles to be spicy and hoped that the vinegar peanuts would provide some relief, but these were equally loaded with heat. Being more a fan of chili than vinegar, I preferred the bowl of pickles and probably wouldn’t have ordered both of these had we known that the pickles would also be peanut-heavy.
Eeeeeasily the best thing I tasted here. And you just know it wouldn’t have been nearly as good had the bacon only been cooked twice. Like the rice roll at Congee Village, I could eat these rice cakes for every meal ever. They’re a little bit chewy, a little bit gelatinous, and a lot purely satisfying simple carbs. This dish was spicy in a way that I’ve never experienced spice. It wasn’t the eye-watering, nose-running spice of Thai food or Indian food. It was a red pepper spice that literally made my mouth go numb. In a good way. In an I-don’t-want-to-ever-stop-eating-this-why-did-we-also-order-the-whole-side-of-a-fish way. It’s hard for me to express how much I loved this plate without writing a full-on love letter in drool.
If you’d told me I’d someday find myself holding onto a fin and yanking the meat off not to torture a fish but to eat it . . . but this was a) fried, b) boneless, c) fishy as all get-out but strangely delicious. The breading was thick and crunchy, like a shell. And the fact that it was coupled with those fatty, buttery biscuit halves didn’t hurt.
I only ate one of these, because clams are weird. But: basil.
Everyone, including me, somehow assumed that pig tails would be curly and skinny. But these were big and thick and meaty. If I hadn’t known they were tails, I’d think they were ribs. Only the meat was a little tougher and almost gamier, like it was on its way to being venison jerky. The smoky sauce made it a spicy/sweet mess that evoked all sorts of backyard barbeques when we added the meat to the white bun and potato salad.
My descriptions of these dishes are a joke next to the actual flavors. As someone who’s suuuuuper picky about traditional Chinese food, I didn’t expect to walk away from Mission Chinese Food exclaiming over how delicious and exciting everything was. Especially since it was SO spicy. But in addition to loving the food, I really, really loved the cool, transporting-you-to-a-different-world-ness of the place in general. I’ve still been talking about it so much that my friends all want to go and have been, like, name-dropping it on their OkCupid profiles without ever having eaten there. I’ll just remember to bring a big flask of milk with me the next time.
I know it’s not couth to admit this, but I don’t care much for Chinese food. I love the ponzus and wasabis of Japan. I love the chilis and kaffir leaves of Thailand. I love the, well, everything of India. I love Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian, and Korean. But when I think of Chinese food, I think of brown sauce. To me, it’s bland and sugary and does nothing to make plain chicken any more exciting. If I’m eating Chinese, I’m going to avoid the brown sauce by ordering sweet and sour chicken–because breading automatically makes things 100% more delicious–but I know that sweet and sour chicken is the last thing Chinese people want representing their cuisine.
So when my boyfriend kept trying to push Congee Village onto me, I was understandably resistant. And then we went, and it was wonderful, and I liked it so much I’m actually the one trying to convince him that we need a whole garlic chicken for dinner every night. Here’s a compilation of most of the dishes we’ve tried so far.
The decor at Congee Village is, while a little cheesy (see wall mural above), so much nicer than most cheap Chinatown joints. The lack of fluorescent lighting is a lot of it, but the fact that all of the furniture is wood and wicker makes it automatically seem nicer. The upstairs is bright and open, while the lower level is darker and cozier. A girl wouldn’t be horrified if you took her on a date here. Just don’t order her the fish head in broth unless you know she’s that kind of girl.
The service is neutral-to-borderline-hostile, but the food makes up for it.
This is easily my favourite dish here. XO is made of dried scallops, shrimp, and fish but mostly tastes like chilies and garlic. Since I had it first at Momofuku Ko a few years ago, I’m always excited to see it on a menu, and its natural deliciousness is only enhanced when its spread on something carby and comforting like these chewy fried rice rolls. The egg, chives, sprouts–it’s all complex and texture-ful.
Here’s a bad iPhone photo of it that gives you a better idea of what the rice rolls look like:
Otherwise known as soup dumplings or xiaolongbao. You bite the tops off of these, slurp the soup inside, and then eat the ball of pork inside. I’m sure any Chinese person would tell you that the skin of these is too thick and the soup isn’t plentiful enough, but at least you don’t have to deal with the long waits and gigantic communal tables of Chinatown soup dumpling favourite Joe’s Shanghai to get your fix. (And these are cheaper, too.)
a.k.a. char siu bao. Mostly a cloud of squishy carbs but with a tiiiiiny dollop of hoisin-flavored pork in the center. Not for the diabetic. I probably could’ve eaten twenty of these but mostly just to finally get enough filling. They’re only $1.80 for two, though, so it’s not like I was expecting a pig feast.
Think sausage patties but with big cubes of lotus root in every bite. The minced pork with salted fish is actually the more oft-recommended dish, but the recommendation usually comes with a caveat like “it’s an acquired taste” or “you would most likely hate it”. This was a pretty familiar taste, but the texture was an entirely new thing with the addition of the crunchy/starchy lotus root.
My boyfriend is half-convinced that he should live like a Buddhist monk and avoid anything with too much flavor, so this dish was totally his doing and his responsibility to eat. I appreciated the sheer number of different vegetables and fungi in it, but it mostly just tasted like soy sauce.
Brown sauce! This is a simple, belly-filling sticky rice with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables. I wanted the salted chicken one, but our server told me it’s salty and recommended this one instead. I think he was worried about my blood pressure. Another time, we had the rice baked with two kinds of Chinese sausage, which I would more be likely to order again. Not only did it not have the dreaded brown sauce, but the sausages were very distinct and a little bit funky.
Apparently this is a luxury item served on special occasions in China, which explains why it was so expensive (and by that, I mean $15). We innocently ate this before learning that sharks’ rights groups are trying to get it banned because hunters will shear the fins off of sharks and throw them back into the water, where they’re unable to swim. In the U.S., though, shark fins can’t be imported without the rest of the shark attached, so . . . at least we force people to kill them completely? I guess we prooooobably wouldn’t order this again, knowing now what we do, but I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t an interesting bowl of soup. The flavor was mostly the crab, but the texture was gloopy and gelatinous and unique. I liked it, okay? I’m a bad person.
I have no memory of the type of porridge I ordered (knowing me, the salted chicken or roast duck and meatball one), but it doesn’t really matter. I know there’s a variation of this dish in, like, every Asian culture, so there has to be something to it, but for us it was so flavorless we found ourselves mixing every condiment on the table into it. I guess that’s why it’s for sick people and babies. I can see how it’d make a decent side dish for the more flavorful main dishes (RICE ROLLS WITH XO SAUCE), but I probably don’t need to eat a whole bowl by myself again.
I don’t even want to talk about this.
Crispy outside. Doughy inside. $1. With icing-like condensed milk for dipping on the side. This and a bubble tea (ask to see their separate drink menu for the bubble teas and fruit drinks) is simple perfection in starch form.
This is a terrible iPhone photo of a really great dish. The most important dish, really. A whole or half chicken, crispy skin saltily glazed, big slivers of fried garlic, and juicy, flavorful insides. There were big pieces and small pieces, white pieces and dark pieces. The more we ate, the more there seemed to be on the plate. Any time we go here and don’t order this, I feel like we wasted the visit.
My friend Ash, a food blogger in her own right, heard about Pig and Khao (get it? cow?) from her sister, who must have a Google alert for the words “pig face salad” to have found out about this place so fast. We detoured from our already-scheduled dinner in Ktown last night and headed to the Lower East Side instead to catch this Filipino/Thai collaboration between former “Top Chef” contestant Leah Cohen and the Fatty Crew (of Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue) on its second night in business.
The promise of bottomless tap beer in the garden was tempting, but I couldn’t resist this Phuket Punch, a blend of prosecco, grapefruit-cinnamon syrup, and mint. The first note was biting citrus, then came the warming cinnamon, and finally the light, refreshing wine.
The tap was having a tantrum when we arrived, so my friend Kim ordered a Tiger lager instead and sipped it from a bowl as instructed. (The tap began working later in the evening, and the staff offered to let Kim have at it, too. Bonus!)
Succulent, slightly charred chicken over a lemongrass slaw where mint and cilantro were the stars, with a little bit of lime and plenty of ocean flavor from the tiny dried shrimp that flecked the plate.
A classic Filipino dish that Ash called “pig face” but that the menu more delicately labeled “pork head”. Hot dishes with a raw egg to mix in happen to be a favourite of all three of us lady-diners, so this was an instant hit. It smelled like the barnyard, but it tasted like bacon wrapped in foie gras. I loved the blend of meaty chunks and melt-in-your-mouth fatty chunks.
We ordered this to have a dish with some sauce, but we might have been better off with the khao soi recommended by our server. The sauce was indeed the point of the dish with its extremely spicy red pepper flakes, but the steak itself didn’t quite work for me in the context of a wrap. It was too tough for me to tear with my teeth, so I ignored the bibb lettuce and ate it with fork and knife. This is the one dish I would skip next time.
This was another dish Ash wanted to compare with the ones back home in the Philippines, and we were all pleasantly surprised that it arrived off the bone and fit for rabid consumption with soy sauce and liver dipping sauces. There were juicy, meaty pieces and dessicated crispy pieces and crunchy skin with an inch of fat still attached. Heavenly.
The point of Filipino food for me is the halo-halo, and this one will keep my tongue lolling for a while. Ash pointed out that the ice in your everyday halo-halo is crushed and therefore a little trying to eat; this shaved ice went down smooth and became a nice sweet milk slush as it grew warmer. Ash also pointed out that this is a pared-down version of the halo-halo she’s used to with so many ingredients it can overwhelm the palate. The strips of macapuno (coconut) were sweet, thick, and chewy, and the pinipig (crushed rice) added a toasty flavor and a light crunch. The ube (purple yam) ice cream was sweeter and more flavorful that I’ve had it, but the thing that really amazed me was the leche flan.
I will never order flan for dessert, because it’s too weak for me, too thin and gelatinous and slippery. I like a hearty dessert. I like cookie dough. You know what I mean. Ash described leche flan to us as thicker and creamier than the flans we’re used to, but I had no idea. This was like cubes of cheesecake. Only they tasted better than cheesecake. And there were only TWO of them in my bowl! Next time, I’ll be requesting extra leche flan. Because there will be a next time.
The menu is set to expand in the coming weeks, but you can view the prototype we ordered from here:
• Pig and Khao Menu, side 1
• Pig and Khao Menu, side 2
wd~50 is one of the first restaurants my boyfriend and I visited once we agreed that while some couples exercise together and some couples vacation together, we were going to be a couple who ate really fantastically over-the-top meals together. We celebrated our second anniversary with a few savory courses and the five-course dessert tasting and then went back for the full tasting menu, which included dishes that we still talk about years later as iconic examples of molecular gastronomy.
When we heard that the menu format had changed to celebrate wd-50′s ninth anniversary, we knew it was time to go back again. The “From the Vault” menu is five of the most memorable courses from the restaurant’s past for $75, but we opted for the new twelve-course tasting menu for $155 with wine pairings:
Salsify, the root of a plant, as rice? It wasn’t unconvincing, and knowing that salsify is said to taste like oysters, using it as the base of a seafood dish is so clever. There was a heavy lime component to this, and the crisp texture of the sesame paired well with the springier fish and “rice”.
It seems like a bit of a cop-out to hide the lobster roe in the dough, but no one would mistake this for plain old pasta. Not only because of the color (lobster roe is called “coral” for a reason), but also it was funky–not just salty like fish roe is but a little organy. Sweet, light grapes and sour pickled onion cut the richness of the buttery lobster coins nestled below.
Pho, the Vietnamese soup, has never been of any interest to me despite my boyfriend’s attempts at tempting me with it whenever we order Vietnamese takeout, because a) soup in general is dumb, and b) drowning good beef in water is dumb. Plus, pho–this one included–is so cumbersome to eat between slurping the noodles and spilling the broth and losing the meat at the bottom of the bowl. But this one was worth it. The broth was so wonderfully belly-warming and anise-flavored that I suddenly wished it was cold winter night in front of the space heater (not quite as romantic as a fireplace, but good luck finding that in NYC). The dwarf bush basil added so much to the dish that any bite without it seemed wasted. We loved the spicy lime-hoisin sauce under the puffed tendon on the side of the plate, but the real star was the tendon itself, which was like eating a really buttery packing peanut. The foie fell apart under my fork and made the broth richer and creamier than any traditional pho’s.
The New York Times tells me that the “amaro” portion of this dish is the “yolk of a duck egg that’s been bathed in amaro, the strident Italian spirit, after having been cured for six hours in salt and sugar so that its texture thickens”. But that’s not important. What’s important is that the thick, gelatinous yolk at the center of this nest of carrot shavings mixes with the fatty chicken confit to make the richest, most flavorful chicken. The peas–made of compressed carrot covered in “pea powder”–were firm, almost crunchy, while the carrot “pasta” was tender and sweet.
If you’ve ever tasted honey mustard pretzels, you know what it’s like to eat mustard meringue. Meringue cookies are one of the least-satisfying desserts I can think of, but savory meringue cookies are an extra-interesting way to condiment a pile of lunch meat. The mustard was the perfect spicy compliment to the herbaceous za’tar and its sumac flavor that my boyfriend recognized from his family’s Persian cooking. The sweet plum added great texture, but all of the flavors of the dish muted the veal, which I wanted to have an even punchier, pastrami-like flavor.
Chilled crab made for such a nice contrast to the crisp saffron cake, which brought to mind the warmer climates the kaffir lime also suggested. Crab lovers may find the saffron overpowering, but saffron lovers will be salivating uncontrollably.
To be absolutely fair, this dish made me appreciate black licorice in a way I never have with Easter jelly beans. To be absolutely honest, I only remember this dish because of how unremarkable it was. The fish had been poached and was basically flavorless; I’m really not sure why it hadn’t been at least grilled. It became nothing more than a vessel for transporting the pil pil sauce, which was luckily very balanced and not at all overwhelmingly bitter. The fried green tomato mostly tasted like its breading, which was quite a relief to this tomato-hater. This was an unfortunate misstep in a restaurant we associate with bold flavors (foie gras with a passion fruit center!).
It was Chef Wylie Dufresne who first made me like sweetbreads back in 2008 with his fried version paired with beets, so I was expecting a lot going into this dish and truthfully wasn’t all that in love. I liked the sauce the sweetbreads were rolled in, but their texture was not only not what I’ve come to expect from them but also just not that pleasant. When I think sweetbreads, I think of the ones from Momofuku Ssam Bar, which I described as “sweet and creamy inside, spicy and crispy on the outside, with a kick from the lemon segments arranged on top . . . like fried chicken, if chicken had the texture of custard”. These were more like little pellets of dry, chalky meat substitute, smooshed together to form what looked like owl upchuck. The pistachio brittle and zucchini were a relief after that, as were the very peppery nasturtium leaves.
Thank god this dish arrived next and canceled out any disappointment I had about the previous two courses (and oh, just wait for the desserts!). We were expecting ribs: you know, meat still on the bone, sauce all over our hands and mouths, not enough wetnaps in the world to clean us. But this was bacony, smoky pork deboned, cooked overnight, and formed into this lovely little slab fit for fine dining. The root beer was evident in the sauce, its flavors highlighted by the spice in the apricot spread. The rye really tasted bitter and wheaty and desperately needed the sweetness of the spread; together, they were complex and hearty. The filling, homey components of this dish made for such a nice contrast to the lighter dishes earlier in the progression.
You know how people always say, “This dish was a revelation,” when they mean, “I’m too lazy to describe to why this dish was good”? This dish was actually a revelation for me. I only started eating cucumbers a few years ago, and I only started liking them even more recently, so the idea that I would not just like a cucumber dessert but love it and love it even more than the chocolate-marshmallow dessert is astounding. And in fact, I loved this more than I’ve ever loved any of the Per Se palate cleansers. There were little cubes of the sweetest honeydew under that thick, salty, frozen cucumber disc, mixed into a creamy Chartreuse custard. Tapping through the disc with my spoon was like cracking the top of a creme brulee. The celery leaves made the cucumber taste sweet, and the cucumber made the honeydew taste sweet, and I’ve never liked any of them more than in this dish.
wd~50 has taken away its a la carte menu option but is serving two dishes for $25 and every additional dish for $15 at the bar, so you can bet I’m going to see if I can order this there.
This beautiful cloud-like puff of ice milk deflated under my fork like a sponge cake would and melted into the crunchy crust underneath. Seeing yuzu on any menu perks me up, and its sour citrus flavor was such a complement to these sweet, sweet ripe berries. The basil puree, something I’d usually salivate at the idea of, was so salty that I almost found it too savory; I probably would’ve preferred some boring basil leaves.
With a smoky flavor throughout, especially in the edible cocoa stick, this was authentic as a s’more could be while still remaining totally frou-frou. The crispy chocolate wafer absorbed the rich ganache underneath, the thin ice cream melted and became a glaze for the browned marshmallow, and the very intense currant became another element of richness. It was playful, artful, and just plain delicious.
Tart raspberry, an element of crunch, and the taste of burned bread. Gjetost is a brown cheese made of caramelized cow and goat milk, and I’d seen pictures of the stuff, but I didn’t put two and two together as I was eating this. I also dropped it down my dress and had to fish it out while our server politely looked the other way, so . . . not a very successful end to the meal on my part.
Our impression leaving wd~50 is that the tasting menu just didn’t seem all that molecularly gastronomical. (I read an article recently where a critic said New Yorkers don’t embrace the really avant-garde culinary arts like Chicagoans do and wondered if Chef Dufresne was trying to cater to our stodgy tastes.) But then we started thinking about the menu and said, “Hey, but there was something special about that egg,” and “Remember those little yogurt drops on the crab?” Perhaps the newest techniques are still being used but in a more restrained, less showy way.
It seems that while wd~50 was busy growing up, so were my boyfriend and I. When we visited the restaurant in 2008 and then again in 2010, we had what were some of the most inventive, composed dishes we’d ever seen. Since then, we’ve been to all but one of the three Michelin star restaurants and most of the two stars. We’d never been to Per Se, and now we’ve been there three times. This weekend, we’re going to Momofuku Ko for the fifth time. After all of that, eating at wd~50 was like visiting an old friend, but it wasn’t as palate-inspiring as those places are. Even newcomer Atera was more playful, more can’t-wait-to-see-what-they-come-up-with-next. There were enough wow moments on this menu, though, that I’ll continue to be sentimental about wd~50.
You know how I have a blog? That’s called donuts4dinner? Well, until a couple of weekends ago, I had never been to Doughnut Plant.
Dunkin Donuts, where the doughnuts come stale and in ultra-boring flavors and always seem way more delicious in my mind than they actually are? All the time.
Doughnut Plant, where the doughnuts are continuously made fresh while you watch and come in flavors you’ve never seen before and are actually more delicious than you expect? Never.
I won’t tell you all of the things my boyfriend and I had already consumed during our walk around Chinatown and the Lower East Side that day, but suffice it to say that we only needed one doughnut.
After much deliberation–coconut cream? cinnamon bun? tres leches?–
OH, CRAP. I just remembered the most amazing thing that happened while we were waiting in line. It was all quiet in the store, and behind us, I could hear this skinny blonde saying, “Should we get the tres leches?” to her companion. Only she was pronouncing it tray lesh. You guys, she thought it was French or something. Which is hilarious on its own, because what kind of hole are you living in that you’ve never heard of tres leches cake and can’t figure out that it has a Spanish pronunciation?
But MORE IMPORTANTLY, if leche is a word in French–and I’m not even sure it is–it sure doesn’t mean “milk” like it does in Spanish. So what did she think this doughnut tasted like?!
I swear I’m not trying to be elitist here. I’m just so interested in what was going through this girl’s mind and am dying to know if she was visiting from Ohio, because that’s the only place I can imagine tres leches cake still being unknown.
Anyway, we ultimately decided on the peanut butter and banana square doughnut, because
1) the squares are the biggest and most gluttonous,
2) jam filling is too healthy,
3) peanut butter is, like, my favourite thing in the world next to pizza.
It did not disappoint. This thing was fluffy, fresh, crunchy, sweet, nutty, banana-y, and huge. I have to be honest here and say that I don’t even really care about bananas, and I loved the banana cream. I’m not saying marshmallow cream wouldn’t have been better, but still. I also don’t like eating sweet things with nuts in them, because long after the sweet taste has vanished, I’m still finding savory nuts in my teeth, but these nuts were brittle and easily crunched, as if they were caramelized. And when I found them in my teeth later, it was a treat.
220 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011 (map)
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)