Saturday, March 8, 2014
Few American-based Chinese chefs would dare to redefine the boundaries of Chinese cuisine beyond what's supposed to be the taste of the Orient in America.
But after reading about a new restaurant that opened several years ago in New York called Redfarm, I longed to go there. The chef, Joe Ng, was billed as the dumpling king and was shepherded by Manhattan Chinese restaurant guru, Ed Schoenfeld, to join what was already being called the best restaurant in the country.
Redfarm impressario, Ed Schoenfeld
Dishes like pastrami egg rolls, pac-man dumplings and jalapeno poppers drew headlines if not a few arched brows.
Redfarm pac-man dumplings
New York has no shortage of Chinese restaurants, with the best, most authentic examples right now outside Chinatown in places like Flushing, Queens, which has an enormous immigrant Chinese population. But I was not about to trek to the boroughs during my short overnight stay last week.
Redfarm is housed in the proverbial hole in the wall, a space more audaciously referred to as the parlor floor of a circa 1828 townhouse in the West Village, where Hollywood hipsters co-mingle with ancient Bohemians in this city’s colorful far-flung high-rent district.
Redfarm's congenial dining room
Like most restaurants that don’t take reservations, the drill is the same. You wait. But the hostess advised that I call the restaurant after five to put my name on a waiting list and then ring up again 15 minutes before arriving.
After climbing the steep stoop to the first floor hall, I maneuvered around a baby stroller blocking the door, hoping that the pram was without passenger since I had no choice but to push it out of the way.
The long, 15-foot wide room sports a central communal table that seats about 30, with some two- tops along the sides and a small bar in the back. Miraculously we were seated without delay. And I was very impressed that Schoenfeld himself was cruising the room keeping a careful eye on everything and everyone. To be sure this was blasé New York breezily at ease.
I invited a friend who lives in the neighborhood to join me. He’s hardly a food maven and had never been to the restaurant. He left it up to me to order but advised that he was now a vegetarian.
I didn’t pick from the dim sum selections, for which Ng is famous, but studied instead the list of specials and menu staples. After a quick read I waved toodle-loo to any notion of standard Chinese cooking. (I wasn’t there for that.) Instead I reveled in the flowering of inauthentic Chinese fare prepared by a brilliant chef who crossed the line marvelously.
We started off with bay scallop ceviche in the shell, shimmering under a scrim of caviar arranged over brilliant green porcelain jars holding crushed ice. The cilantro laced juices flowed in an invigorating lash of flavor and I could have had ten more of these frisky, brazen bivalves so beautifully presented.
Scallop cevice with caviar
Next up were the avocado and mango summer rolls, which were woven into wraps that were nestled on a bed of mango-avocado salsa.
Summer rolls served over an avocado-mango salsa
One of my favorite dishes was the shrimp stuffed crispy chicken lollipops. As soon as I picked one up the juices began to go everywhere until I realized--just pop the whole thing in the mouth to savor it securely.
Shrimp stuffed crispy chicken lollipops
For a main course we were thrilled by the steamed branzino in a black bean garlic sauce and ma-po tofu--a spicy Sichuan conjugation of jaunty nuggets of soy curd--hot, spicy, salty and sweet.
My next dish (not fit for my vegetarian friend) was glistening orb-like pieces of burnished lamb with asparagus and hot Chinese pepper. The lamb was deeply flavorful and the accompanying dish of soft and crunchy fried rice with diced vegetables added refined taste and texture. It was all so good we easily skipped dessert.
The next time—and there will be one—Ng’s dim-sum are a must as are the 30 other dishes available with great fanfare every evening.
By now you might be asking why I should write about a restaurant in New York in a blog devoted to Maine dining?
The answer is simple. Food is universal.
That said, I already long for another dinner there. For now I'm happy to have what's here, which could take place (at this writing it will be in a few hours) at Zen Bistro, Miyake, Boda, Tao, Long Grain or any other establishment that dares to be different.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.