August 29, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

RedFarm: Ad-Libbing the Revolution

Korean rice cakes are gummy but I love braised dark meat chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
Korean rice cakes are gummy but I love braised dark meat chicken. Photo: Steven Richter

        Along the bumpy way to opening a West Village dim sum carry-out parlor they planned to seed all around town, the partners at RedFarm starting winging it, tasting and ad-libbing. With the dim sum meister Joe Ng and his major league dumpling team in the kitchen, long time Chinese Big Daddy Eddie Schoenfeld conjuring and editing, and Jeffrey Chodorow backing and advising, they decided to open a great Chinese restaurant instead. In a month of experiments and “family” tastings – I talked my way into three of them – the place is already impressive.

Red Farm is definitely cute with a communal table and relaxed mingling. Photo: Steven Richter

       First of all, what they fit into this 1828 parlor floor above a laundromat on Hudson is definitely cute with its few red and white banquettes. The communal tables with lead pipes above where chopsticks, menus, greenery and votive lights hang, encourage friendly mingling. In a pinch, the host can even stuff 56 into his 45 seats.

Ed Schoenfeld stirs up a farm-to-table revolution with "inauthentic" Chinese cooking. Photo: Steven Richter

       Chinese? Sorry. It just started out Chinese. Then something happened. Smoked salmon and eggplant bruschetta. Kumamoto oysters on Meyer lemon-yuzu ice. Okra and Thai eggplant yellow curry. It is “unabashedly inauthentic,” as Eddie Schoenfeld is saying now. Did I hear someone say “fusion?” He would prefer you simply acknowledge the untamable Ng’s genius. And maybe his own for giving it room. He expects RedFarm will be a positive influence, teaching established Chinese restaurants a thing or two, waking them up to a farm-to-table philosophy. “Most of them are in a rut. They need to cut loose."

Shu mai shooters and smoked salmon salad on eggplant bruschetta. Photo: Steven Richter

       So the Pac-Man shrimp dumplings are not just adorable critters, delicate skins, sublime shrimp filling, they come with a tempura sweet potato to scoop up the rough-cut guacamole alongside. Kowloon filet mignon tarts sport silken cubes of beef on a savory corn-flecked paste in a layered pastry shell with a frizz on top. (Listed under small bites on the menu, $8.50 for just two.) Shu mai shooters are fabulous savory bundles poised atop a shot of namby pamby lukewarm carrot ginger juice.

"Chrysanthemum" floats above mushroom and vegetable spring rolls. Photo: Steven Richter

        The luscious duck and Fuji apple stir-fry laced with hoisin sauce – sweet and satiny, savory and crunchy - to wrap in carefully trimmed circlets of Romaine may remind you of minced lettuce-wrapping moments past. These with their tomatillo salsa topping imitate tacos. (Two little bowls for $12 are enough for four “tacos” if you ask for extra lettuce.) Don’t ignore mushroom and vegetable spring rolls because they sound prim in such smart company. They are a feast for all five senses, starting with the wild sight of spiraling pastry forming giant chrysanthemums atop each crunchy roll.

Dim Sum wiz loves shaping dumplings into frogs, guppies, Pac Men. Photo: Steven Richter

        Alas, smartly grilled Portobello mushroom underneath can’t make up for dryish slices of barbecued pork belly. And the Katz’s pastrami spring roll that had me giggling and keening at FoodParc, where RedFarm introduced it, seems leaner tonight. But our foursome is taken with the sensory bombardment of kung pao pork and chicken triangles in a peppery “soup,” and the delicacy of masterly shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings from the steamer.

A luscious haystack of chicken salad may or may not be loaded with bird. Photo: Steven Richter

        And yes, the dish might be different tomorrow. Even after almost a month of friends and family dinners, “We’re still testing and trying and adjusting,” Schoenfeld confides. The mountainous chicken salad that blew my mind that first dinner – a haystack of delicious surprises, so much crunch, vegetables sweet and tangy, huge chunks of dark meat chicken that I couldn’t stop eating – was definitely missing something a few days later. Chicken actually. Where were all those juicy morsels that had me raving? Schoenfeld seemed upset too. “It’s still a work in progress,” he admitted.

Joe Ng has more dim sum, more whimsical ideas, then space allows. Photo: Steven Richter

        The many crossed out items on tonight’s menu are simply those Joe has yet to find time to work on in the minuscule kitchen, where fryers and custom-built fridges are arranged like a crossword puzzle to fit the space. Only so many stir fries can be done at a time. But I’m focused on the bites and dumplings anyway. Eddie first introduced me to Joe Ng’s wizardry in Brooklyn – he has more than a thousand savory and sweet dim sum in his repertory, plus what he’s been dreaming up here. And amazingly, no repetition of Ng’s thrilling dim sum at Chinatown Brasserie.

Satiny chunks of lamb with green and white asparagus and peppery heat. Photo: Steven Richter

        So I’ve only tasted a few “Mains,” from $17 to $36 for a remarkably meaty and tender marinated steak, sliced and rare as we requested, with bok choy. We’ve devoured every morsel of the diced lamb with pickled radish except for a few divots of torrid pepper. Sauteed black cod with yellow leeks and radish thins is disappointingly bland. But dark meat chicken with star anise baked in a casserole, messy and wonderful to pick up with “flatbread,” seems designed for a dark meat chicken-only soul like me. “We don’t have chicken breast in the house,” Schoenfeld assures me, indignant I might think he would.

       There ought to be more noodle dishes. I love everything about the spicy Korean rice cake stir fry except the huge and chewy rice pasta ovals. Infinitely better are sinuous flat rice noodles with shredded roast duck and pickled mustard greens, though the dish lacks a fusion je ne sais quoi. Steven tries a generous dab of hot sauce and almost levitates. Applied judiciously, it does wonders.

Kowloon filet mignon rides in layered pastry tarts - triumphant. Photo: Steven Richter

        The yellow curry of okra with Thai eggplant is a smart alchemy too, but all that sauce cries out for rice. Since there is no simple boiled rice, we settle for soft and crunchy vegetable fried rice. That works for the curry and on its own too, with the clever play of crisp against soft.

       I’d love some of the chef’s sweet dim sum for dessert. The lichee mousse is chicly decked out with chocolate calligraphy, but not worth eating. Eddie hopes Ng will do his remarkable Chinese crullers for the breakfast they might serve one day. He dreams of doing tea, too. And stretching dinner till 2 am. But first: To open.

The Chodorow scion Zack has a following at Red Farm too. Photo: Steven Richter

        At our last meal before the place closed for the weekend with the threat of Irene, I actually succeeded in paying a check. That won’t defuse critics who will chide me for waving these raves before the door actually opens. That’s planned for Tuesday.

       I for one am cheering this will be a win for the unduly abused Jeffrey Chodorow (and not just because he’s an advertiser). His son Zack stirs up the mix with his own following. And all of us who know Eddie Schoenfeld – not just as an amazing cook and a friend - but as the ambitious right hand of David Keh and Michael Tong in the golden years of Chinese food in New York - can’t help but wish him the triumph that eluded him in l992 at his own ill-fated Chop Suey Louie’s Lychee Lounge. Now he must prove to be the chef whisperer who can gentle the capricious prodigy and guard him from chef-napping.

529 Hudson Street between Charles and Tenth Street. (212) 792-9700. Seven days from 5:30pm to midnight.

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