November 2, 2015 | BITE: My Journal
Yunnan BBQ: Turning Up the Heat (CLOSED)
To peel or not to peel? I get the most flavor from eating my prawn, shell and all.
When it opened, Yunnan Kitchen was just a one-time stop on my rounds in search of a restaurant good enough or bad enough to write about. That was three years ago. It was hardly memorable. I didn’t even bother to type a few notes. It could be I weighed the long, treacherous detour to the far end of Clinton Street against a lack of rapture. A modest one star in the Times did not tempt me to return.
I don’t see signs of barbecue through the window pass in the kitchen.
Erika Chou had thought the restaurant world would be a stimulating haven from fashion. Early on, she recruited Doron Wong as a chef-partner. Neither of them had ever been to Yunnan, but then not many New Yorkers have been either, so they probably won’t be sued for strict accountability.
There used to be eggplant with crushed peanuts on the Yunnan Kitchen menu.
What seemed more important was that the two agreed on a farmers market approach to shopping and a certain flexibility in marketing the menu. But that wasn’t enough to keep the seats filled. A few months ago, the idea of barbecue loomed. Chou and Wong changed the name to Yunnan BBQ. That got attention from FloFab at the Times and Eater. And yes, me.
A soft, pasty elongated lamb meatball is part of the skewered Shangri La platter.
Images of devilled beef bones danced in my head. I could almost taste the fast-seared marinated short rib in Korean barbecue. In September, I was looking for a spot downtown to meet friends from Brooklyn. How about barbecue! I’d forgotten the $60 round-trip taxi ride to Clinton Street. And it wasn’t just the challenge of getting there from the Upper West Side. Fate seems to have cursed Yunnan Kitchen. Access from my cab was blocked by a wall of debris, a construction barricade on the street. I trudged to the corner and around the heaving sidewalk.
The room is almost deserted in the early bird hours of September.
Inside, the dark wood and brick did not seem even vaguely familiar. But then, think how many brick-faced, packing crate-shod spaces I’ve seen, how many unpadded banquettes my bottom has rudely encountered in three years of hope-spurred tasting rounds.
The crisp smashed cucumber salad of late summer has given way to cuke with wood ear mushrooms.
I don’t notice the menu says “Yunnan Kitchen.” It seems the publicity has outrun any actual changeover. In the pleasure of seeing old friends who’ve been out of the country all year, I forget I’ve come for barbecue. But I like most of what I order. My friends do, too, starting with the freshness of the smashed cucumber salad in garlicky sesame oil with boiled peanuts that look like beans. And the Chinese eggplant spiked with black vinegar and garlic and sprinkled with crushed peanuts.
Caramelized chicken was tossed with bok choy, bell peppers, Thai chili and crispy rice cakes.
Maybe the grilled lamb skewers with Yunnan spices – soft and pasty in texture -- are a little weird, but I’d say weird in an intriguing way. I chew a whole prawn, starting just above the tail, skin and all, sucking the neck juice, noticing that for $16 we get six, two for each of us. Bok choy, sweet peppers, and sticky rice cakes are tossed into the caramelized chicken, though the promised Thai chili is still too spare. We ask the server to tell the kitchen to turn up the heat.
My friends called for beer and more beer after feeling the chile burn of braised goat ma po doufu.
The sting finally hits with the goat ma po doufu (sic), the Sichuan ma numbing our mouths. Ron gulps his Tsingtao beer. Janice orders one quickly to cool her mouth. Even so, we agree, just tossing darts at the menu, we’ve had mostly wonderful food. They talk about coming back.
Now, homestyle stir-fried mushrooms with Benton’s ham is on the new Yunnnan menu.
I had not planned on another visit any time soon, but a friend thought our little band of ethnic adventurers might like to explore the new menu at Yunnan BBQ. He knows barbecue in Chinese means “roast” and he’s early enough to score a $13 Gilded Lily cocktail for $11 during the “Happy Hour.”
Potato pancake by any other name is a must for me and my crowd.
The truth is Yunnan BBQ has not changed all that much. Maybe the red lanterns are new. There are the same shabbily framed souvenirs of China on the walls. The same stir-fried mushrooms with a curl of Benton’s ham. And I don’t recall the Yunnan potato pancakes – crunchy little sticks, a nice side. One of our guests knows Wong, who doubles the order as a gift so each of us can have one.
Crushed soybeans and wok-charring are supposed to make Brussels sprouts Yunnanese, too, but I don’t care. I almost never overlook a chance to order Brussels sprouts. Have you noticed?
Fiery wok-charred Brussells sprouts are the vegetable-forward touch we crave.
I can’t deny my pals the crispy prawns, although they may insist on cutting off the shell, unlike me. There are not six fried kaffir leaves, so I just take one for myself and hope they don’t notice. As I’ve noted, none of us have been to Yunnan, so I can’t testify if house-made pickles on honeyed pork ribs are authentically amusing or just plain amusing.
Cha shao pork ribs are honey-sweet, chile-hot, and topped with sweet pickled beets.
There is nothing remarkable about rare slices of tea-smoked duck served like Peking duck, with Hoisin sauce and slivers of cucumber and scallions. But if I hadn’t ordered it, I wouldn’t have discovered the kitchen’s elegantly eggy crepes. Again, with a thought for the fact that we’re five, the chef has sent an extra steamer. (A full order of duck is $41, and it’s $45 for a platter of Shangri La skewers, though other mains start at $18.)
Here’s a $22 half order of tea-smoked duck to wrap in splendid eggy crepes.
At “Rice & Noodle Time!” as the menu signals it, I contemplate BBQ pork belly fried rice, but I can’t resist Yunnan rice noodles. That’s the flub. Steeped in black vinegar and strafed with fiery bird’s eye chili, it is numbingly hot -- and not merely hot, but ugly too. Our lead ethno eater insists he loves it, but I think he’s just showing off.
Dark soy, black vinegar, and fiery, numbing chile makes the Yunnan Rice noodles a strikeout.
Our waitress brings dessert menus that seem to reflect the house’s ambivalence about Yunnan. Bittersweet chocolate brownie and a “Big Ol’ Chocolate Cookie.” But before we can choose, the kitchen sends out ceramic soup spoons with passion fruit jelly and coconut cream – a brilliant palate cleanser. Then comes almond cake layered with coconut paste and studded with tropical fruit. That’s pretty good too.
Passion fruit jelly and coconut cream is the perfect palate cleanser before dessert.
“We’re still trying to decide what we’ll do for dessert,” the chef confides.
Don’t say I sent you to Yunnan BBQ, unless you have a car and feel like an outing anyway. I won’t be responsible for $60 round-trips by taxi or Obama hitting the FDR Drive the same time you do. Just know that a pleasant adventure awaits, if you happen to get there.
While the house still perfects desserts, this almond cake with coconut paste and tropical fruit is fine.
79 Clinton Street between Rivington and Delancey. 212 253 2527. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 11 pm., Sunday till 10 pm. Closed Monday.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
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