Asian Fusion, the Latest Chapter
IF you want to have some fun, bring friends to Simpson Wong’s new restaurant on Cornelia Street and watch them taste the duck-fat ice creamin a dessert called duck a la plum.
First they stop talking. Then they stop moving. Their eyes shut, and just when you’re wondering how long this will last, they pop open again, bright with the pleasure of discovery.
It’s been a long time since Asian fusion cooking has promised thrills of this sort. When it makes eyes roll these days, nobody smiles. Witness the lengths that some Manhattan restaurants operating in the Asian fusion or pan-Asian idiom go to avoid those terms.
RedFarm has “Chinese cuisine with Greenmarket sensibility,” says the Web site. Kin Shop’s menu is “modern Thai,” and Rouge et Blanc’s is “French-Vietnamese.” At Wong, meanwhile, the euphemism of choice is “Asian locavore.”
Maybe the owners of these places should meet to agree on a name that doesn’t evoke 900-seat nightclubs with giant Buddhas, because taken together with the shock troops at Momofuku and a few other places, they offer hope for New Yorkers who hunger for adventure, for something new.
Duck tongues, anyone? Say yes, please, because I think you’ll like the way Mr. Wong prepares them, braising them to tenderness, then rolling them into small meatballs with a crunchy fried crust. If Mr. Wong sold them to go, I’d buy them by the bag and eat them like popcorn. The menu bills these tongue meatballs as the supporting players to seared scallops, but really, the two are equal partners on a surf and turf platter that’s as wonderful as it is uncommon.
You are a fan of sea cucumbers, too, I hope? You’ll find slippery, crunchy bits of them in Wong’s slightly demented Bolognese. Made with pork and shiitakes, too, and served with fat springy rice noodles, it’s the kind of dish that tastes simply odd at first, but keeps luring you back for another bite. The flavors build as you eat until there’s nothing left.
Like the scallops, the rice noodles appear on the menu beside the restaurant’s logo, a sign that it’s a specialty of the house. In general, dishes bearing that mark are roughly twice as delicious as the others, most of which aren’t half bad to begin with.
You will eat well enough if you order the wreckfish or the pork plate, but your enjoyment of your dinner may be undone by your envy of everybody else’s. (Though I’d steer well clear of the mystifying crab pizza and the duck meatball, neither of which improves on the Italian original.)
Let’s hope that Mr. Wong intends to put his logo next to the entire menu some day. Imagine what this restaurant could be if everything were as compelling as the lobster egg foo young. In any kitchen not owned by Mr. Wong, that dish is a Chinese omelet, usually in brown gravy. Some people like it.
Here it’s half a lobster tail and a claw, poached to an angry red and cradled in a cast-iron skillet with a tomato-chili sauce, a dusting of dried shrimp, two fried chicken eggs with liquid yolks and shaved hard yolks from salt-cured duck eggs.
The dish comes with a slice of toast. I used it to clean my skillet.
The best dishes at Wong have a where-did-that-come-from quality. For some New Yorkers, so will the restaurant. Simpson Wong, the chef and proprietor, has kept a low profile of late, although a previous restaurant of his, Jefferson, was once an address known by car service drivers and executive assistants, especially around 2004, when its sleek minimalist dining room popped up on “Sex and the City.”
The next year, Mr. Wong had a heart attack and closed the restaurant. He tried to restart it as Jefferson Grill, with smaller plates and a lower cholesterol count, but its best days were in the past. It was shut in 2006.
Mr. Wong retrenched to his first restaurant, Cafe Asean (after 15 years, it is still on West 10th Street, still cheap, still pan-Asian and still over-performing). And he traveled. He flew home to Malaysia, where he was born, and rounded up his mother (who is nearly 80 and gets around in a wheelchair). Together, they went on a series of eating tours across Asia.
In Hong Kong, they ate spicy crabs that became a model for the typhoon lobster at Wong. They bought shrimp fritters on the street in Ho Chi Minh City; in Hanoi, they went to Cha Ca La Vong to taste the house specialty, turmeric-scented fish fried with dill stalks, tossed over rice vermicelli and doused with nuoc cham. On Cornelia Street, the dish is renamed cha ca la Wong.
The cooking at Jefferson, which was awarded two stars by William Grimes in 2003, often began with Western ideas to which Asian ingredients were introduced. At Wong, he has kept his freewheeling palate and his nuanced instincts for building contrasts, but the starting point tends to be Asia, which means that his cooking at Wong, at its strongest, resembles nothing else in town.
That is the reason to go to Wong. The dining room is half Williamsburg, half Salvation Army, with wood salvaged from demolition sites and molded-plywood schoolhouse chairs, the kind with a wire basket under the seat for geometry textbooks. The interior probably won’t be seen in the pages of Architectural Record, as Jefferson’s was. But then Jefferson cost three to four times as much, Mr. Wong said in a telephone interview.
These are more sober times, and among chefs more high-minded times as well. Mr. Wong is earnest about his locavore convictions, to the point that he won’t sell bottled water.
Those beliefs also helped inspire an all-American and largely sustainable wine list that, unfortunately, simply can’t keep up with the kitchen. Without compromising his principles, Mr. Wong should be able to do better than the dozen lackluster choices.
The list doesn’t have to be longer, just stronger. For proof, see the dessert menu put together by Wong’s pastry chef, Judy Chen. There are three choices. Two are first-rate and the third has that ice cream that makes time stop.
At 48, Mr. Wong has closed a popular and acclaimed restaurant. He knows what a heart attack feels like. For future reference, if those things happen to you, there are worse ways to react than to invent duck tongue meatballs.