September 19, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
“Tiger in the Kitchen” Cheryl Tan tastes a Jack Daniels-cider cocktail. Photo: Steven Richter
What keeps a restaurant critic dining out after 43 years besides love, money and irrational hunger? For me, it’s the undying dream that dinner will be wonderful. It mostly is tonight at Wong. Our friends have arrived ahead of us. His Hudson corn whiskey cocktail with lavender and fresh peach is surprisingly tart, just to my taste, so I order a Cornelia, the only other cocktail option - Jack Daniels with unfiltered apple cider. It looks very fashion week, accessorized with a big slice of crisp apple. There’s a tad too much cinnamon but lemon juice makes a citric tang. Not sweet at all, as if custom-made for me. I’m definitely in a good mood.
An improbable toss of shrimp fritters, ham, rice noodles and watermelon. Photo: Steven Richter
Then come luscious shrimp fritters crisped in a sweet potato-jicama batter, served in an improbable toss of ham, rice noodles and watermelon (Asian pears replace melon this week). The waiter pours on noun mum sauce. So much is happening in my mouth: smooth saltiness of ham, rich fritter crackle, the sauce’s preserved fish salinity, a grassy crunch of greens. The table is covered with plates. My friends have moved on. I’m still hooked on fritters.
Simpson Wong's rice noodles with fried egg. Photo: Steven Richter
And egg foo young. I never stop craving egg foo young, always with a flash of memory, my mother ordering it in the ‘50s, “sauce on the side, please.” Now with lobster and a dried shrimp crumble on top served in its own black iron skillet, it’s regal and uppity. “It’s just poor food,” Chef-owner Simpson Wong says. “We were poor and I was the youngest. I always ordered the egg foo young. Here I wanted to make it luxurious.” Our companion tosses it, mixing in leeks and onions from below and portions it into our four celadon green bowls. Very pretty, but not practical when we’re sharing everything, and it all slides together.
Small celadon bowls are pretty, but jumble tasting shares. Photo: Steven Richter.
I want to add a slice of Hakka pork belly with turnips and marvelous little taro root tater tots to my bowl but don’t want to compromise the taste. Wong’s pork belly is unique too, judiciously trimmed, modestly fatty and moist, without that adepoise layer I always want to cut away. And why Hakka? “Because that’s my dialect,” he explains.
Spanish mackerel crudo with seaweed, purlsane, crushed rice crackers. Photo: Steven Richter
Wong wants us to try the Newport steak tataki with rau ram leaves that comes with bone marrow on brioche and a sprinkle of Amagansett salt. We hadn’t ordered the scallops with duck’s tongues but they’ve come anyway, the scallops deliciously caramelized. It’s the weird little tongue he wants us to taste. One of my least favorite parts, I must admit, but frying them crisp does make a difference.
Creamed corn without cream tastes as fresh as if cooked in the field. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m won by the stickiness of rice noodles with pork and sea cucumber ragu, more egg and chestnuts – no, not water chestnuts - European chestnuts. Creamed corn - without cream here - is the essence of summer, warmed in the field seconds after shucking. “I press some of the corn to make the cream,” the chef confides. Go soon. Local corn can’t last much longer.
Chef-owner Simpson Wong with sidekick Blake Joyal in open kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter
Nothing, it seems, is more life-focusing than a heart attack at forty. When Wong was well enough to return to his Café Asean, and the newer Jefferson on West 10th Street – renamed Jefferson Grill - he focused on more healthful eating. It did not survive the big economic stall. Recetly he gave himself a long sabbatical, traveling to Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Bali and home to Malaysia.
It’s not the conceit, it’s the oven that compromises Vietnamese pizza. Photo: Steven Richter
Now he’s translated all those tastes and more into a highly original menu, abbreviated, at least for now – he calls it Asian locovore - in this small Cornelia Street storefront with 44 seats. He did most of the interior design himself on a shoestring, with white-washed brick, flea market tables, reclaimed metal school chairs (there’s a space below to park your school books), cupboards left from his home kitchen renovation and shelves he hung himself. He’s collecting books by friends to display. There are a handful of stools at a counter around the kitchen, and there’s even a small chef’s table on the edge of it where you can watch him working with chef de cuisine Blake Joyal. The prices are modest too. Small plates, $9 to $16, are meant to share. Large plates and noodles, $18 to $24, go a long way.
I imagine I can taste the stops on Wong’s sabbatical in this savory barbecue chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
In fact, the only disappointment is the Vietnamese pizza with Iscan sausage and fennel – kale replaces the stinging nettles advertised on our menu. It tastes not quite cooked. But then it’s only the first week. A work in progress. Crushed rice crackers on top of the Spanish mackeral crudo tossed with seaweed, purslane, mitsuba. is a nice touch too, but the fish could be a bit colder.
After our small plate binge, the four of us don’t have much appetite for barbecue chicken with chrysanthemum greens and frisée salad. Perfectly cooked, moist and painted with savory marinade, it deserves better.
Suddenly, a little after 10, there is music. Fleetwood Mac, the expert at our table observes. Wong wouldn’t know. A friend did the tape for him. “I’m too old for that club crowd,” he says. “I did this place for food lovers.”
Duck ice cream a la plum with five spice cookie and plum fizz. Not since Groucho on TV has a duck been so challenging. Photo: Steven Richter
Judy Chen, a veteran of Daniel, puts her French touch on a real dessert shocker - duck à la plum. Roast duck ice cream, served with star-anise poached plums, a crispy sugar tuile, delicate five spice shortbread cookie and sparkling fresh plum soda. Yes, it’s true, Wong confirms. Chunks of roast duck get immersed in the ice cream mix till time to freeze it. There is a subtle something pleasant in the flavor. I can’t say it tastes exactly duckish. The cookie and plum fizz are great.
I would never dare to judge a restaurant on one thrilling evening. Consistency and stick-to-it-ivness are crucial. Yet here I am. Those shrimp fritters and the egg foo young haunted me all week. The chef tells me he’s been looking at whole pigs in the market and plans to buy one. “I’m thinking of roasting a whole shoulder with Hubbard squash and Brussels sprouts.” I’m haunted now by pork shoulder. I can’t wait to go back.
7 Cornelia Street between West 4th Street and Bleecker Street. 212 989 3399. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday to 1:30. Closed for now on Sunday. Lunch coming soon.