Friday, June 1, 2012

Wong Check-In (New York, NY)

Hakka Pork Belly With Taro Tater Tots

Its decor is heavy on the salvaged elementary school chairs and desks, but Wong's menu is about as far from school cafeteria fare as you can get. The food is clever, well executed, and sophisticated.

At a recent dinner, my convive and I ordered four appetizers, a main and a dessert to share. It was an ungodly amount of food for two people, but our dishes really showcased the kitchen's range of talents.

First up were the Scallops: Crispy Duck Tongue, Cucumber, Jellyfish, a dish that's been on the menu since the restaurant first opened in September 2011.
It's been too long for me to remember all the details of how the dish has evolved, but I seem to recall the jellyfish being dressed with toasted sesame seed oil and served hiding underneath two scallops last time around. This time, three huge, fresh, sweet sea scallops, gorgeously browned, came topped with pretty, translucent slivers of jellyfish (a good aesthetic move), lightly pickled cucumber and two little balls of deep fried duck tongue fritters on either end. The jellyfish added a texture not unlike gelee, a "slipperiness" that worked well with the meaty scallops. Last time around, the center of the single duck tongue fritter tasted like duxelle; this time, the fritters tasted less like either duck tongue or duxelle and more like hush puppies, perhaps. The duck tongue fritters were better in the last iteration, but the scallops and the plate, overall, were better this time.


Shortly after the scallops came to the table, we were presented with a huge slice of Hakka Pork Belly: Hakurei Turnip, Taro Root Tater Tots, Calamansi (pictured at the top of this post). Arguably, pork belly is by now trite in NYC and probably everywhere else, too, but this luscious version transcended triteness. The "slippery", tender braised belly was covered with a thicker, sweeter sauce than any Hakka braised pork I've had, but the sauce was surprisingly non-cloying and its flavors recalled the original in all the right ways (sans fermented bean curd some of you will be relieved to know). Taro root tater tots were little nuggets of purple taro root breaded with a coating that included coconut and lemongrass, I think, and then deliciously, perfectly deep fried. Pickled, acidic turnips cut the sweetness of braised pork. 

Pork Belly: A view of all the fatty, delicious layers....

Next was a remarkable Crispy Soft Shell Crab: Roasted Radish, Brown Butter, Curry Leaves. The crab we were served was as juicy and meaty as a crab can be and, like all the other fried items on the menu we tried, perfectly deep fried, without excessive residual grease. (That frier must get one helluva workout every night.) Conceptually, brown butter seems excessive in combination with deep fried crab, but the butter's sweet fragrance, the sweet crab and the slightly acidic, pleasantly bitter roasted radish were in perfect balance on the plate. This was a brilliant dish.

Crispy Soft Shell Crab

The Duck Bun: Cucumber, Chinese Celery was another wonderful exercise in excess. Rather than using ordinary buns -- the fluffy, white steamed buns NYC has become familiar with at Momofuku restaurants -- Wong deep fries the slightly sweet steamed buns until they are the rich, caramel hue of Padma Lakshmi's skin. Then, these bready half moons are stuffed with a generous (borderline excessive) amount of juicy, toothsome shredded duck meat, refreshing slices of cucumber and a sprig of palate cleansing celery leaf.

Duck Bun

By the time our shared main, the Wood-Grilled Bobo Chicken: Chrysanthemum Greens, Jicama, came to the table, we were groaning at the fullness of our bellies and strategizing a course of action to allow room for dessert, which I couldn't allow my dining companion to miss. As full as we were, though, we couldn't regret the decision to order the chicken after we'd tried it. The free range Bobo chicken had noticeably more flavor and texture than your run-of-the-mill factory farmed bird. It was so delicious, I could imagine it being made into a good version of Hainan chicken rice. The half chicken was topped with a textured garnish (sauce?) that included lemongrass, ginger, garlic, turmeric and possibly coconut, and it came with pleasantly bitter greens, lightly, perfectly dressed with what may have been a buttermilk dressing.

Wood-Grilled Bobo Chicken

Finally, we used the one cubic millimeter of space left in our stomachs to accommodate Wong's signature dessert of Duck a la Plum: Roast Duck Ice Cream, Star Anise-Poached Plums, Crispy Tuile, 5-Spice Cookie. It was good the first time I tried it very soon after opening, but they've since improved the dessert. The flavor of the duck in the richly textured ice cream came through more clearly this time than last time, and the ice cream included the perfect suggestion of salt. The hint of acid in the poached plum, the salt, and the star anise flavors together, reminded me a bit of li hing preserved plums. I think the shot of plum beverage on the left in the photo used to be carbonated; now, it's a still beverage, an intelligent move in my opinion. The fizziness of the original soda made it more difficult to taste some of the flavors on the plate.

Duck a la Plum

Closeup of the Duck Ice Cream

Wong has a far more interesting bread accompaniment than your standard bread basket. Prior to the meal, the kitchen sends out a single, hot, griddled piece of naan with the sort of saucy curry you might find served with roti canai. It's delicious as is, but my dining companion enjoyed the bread most with the pork belly. 

Naan with a Saucy Curried Dip

A note on service and baby friendliness: Granted we were there very early on a weeknight, but the staff was wonderfully warm and accommodating of the Little One. The hostess offered to seat us at a four top so he would have more room to wiggle. The space itself is a bit sweaty because of the heat from the open kitchen and, when its full, quite loud and tight, which may not be to every child's liking. The bathroom is reasonably clean, but you'll have to bring a changing pad and change your baby on the floor if the need arises. The staff earns an A+ for baby friendliness, but like many restaurants, the lack of a changing table or even changing surface in the bathroom earns some demerits. 

Food Rating: A
Baby-Friendly Rating (for early weeknight dinners): A- 

7 Cornelia Street 
New York NY 10014

Monday-Thursday 5:30pm - 10:30pm
Friday-Saturday 5:30pm - 11:00pm

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