Dim sum master Joe Ng sends out pastry hedgehogs with lychee custard. Photo: Steven Richter
Chinese food on Christmas Day is a New York custom. Except for some delis like Barney Greengrass (where you couldn’t count on a table even if you were the Pope) most restaurants are closed. Of course, it’s also a day the Chinese and our town’s fast-growing Asian population wants to eat Chinese too. Last year ten of us waited more than an hour at the vast dim sum parlor Golden Bridge on the Bowery, smooshed in with fiercely territorial multi-generational Chinese clans – and then settled in for shockingly clumsy dim sum. “Why aren’t we eating the best dim sum in town?” I had asked. “Why aren’t we at Chinatown Brasserie.” It seems the otherwise savvy trio that owns the Brasserie didn’t totally understand Christmas tradition. This year Brasserie’s brass smartened up. Our five were first to arrive for the 11:30 brunch.
Black eyed goblin dumplings arrive in a steamer with the chef’s choices. Photo: Steven Richter
Of course I expected to be astonished and couldn’t wait to see the dim sum effect on a newcomer among us, once a restaurant critic in Hong Kong. From time to time the great chefs I revere stumble. But since the first time Chinese food guru Eddie Schoenfeld lured us to New World Tong in Bensonhurst for a dim sum revelation chef Joe Ng has never failed to amaze me with his repertoire of a thousand marvelous little doodads, savory and sweet. And our friend from Hong Kong, happily repatriated in New York, is suitably amazed.
Except for an occasional bow to the white ghosts (that’s us), like turkey buns or the Peking duck dumplings he’s promised to bring back in a few weeks, some playful fusion (mango-pork rolls) and the predominance of dumplings and rolls (over duck feet and tripe), what comes out of the Brasserie kitchen could play in Hong Kong. We’re like kids in a candy store, trying to single out six items to start with from the forty or more on today’s menu. Of course we must have the lush turnip cake with bits of ham and a spoonful of XO sauce. And the uniquely mucky mashed taro with shrimp, crisp fried in the shape of a swan. Shrimp and watercress dumplings are on our list and barbecued lamb with vegetables folded inside a Taiwanese won ton skin and pan fried. Not wanting us to miss some new offerings, the chef sends out lotus pork cakes in crunchy pastry, shrimp and pea sprout dumplings in a wonderful gummy skin, shrimp and salmon roll wrapped in bacon and what looks like a gaggle of little black-eyed goblins, plump with taro root. He stops by with his impish grin and single silver ear dangler for compliments on brunch-so-far.
There are always surprises in the world of creative dim sum. Photo: Steven Richter
Ng’s mastery of texture may not be instantly apparent to most western mouths – we’re moved by flavor, the savory lamb skewers, duck spring roll, crunchy vegetables dumpling with peanuts. But stop for a minute and look at the dumpling skins – some sheer, some opaque, one with a tinge of yellow or green. The chef’s skill with taro flour versus potato starch or green bean starch, wheat starch and tapioca – when to go for texture, when to go for gluten – is the subtle sense that would wow the affluent Chinese New Yorkers who don’t come, he observes, because the restaurant is not Chinese-owned. Although I notice there are a few tables of Chinese lunching today. So maybe the pork bun is just a pork bun and I’m not moved by the chewy barbecued short ribs. We are about to order a half portion of Peking duck, thrillingly crisp and perfect here, $20 to serve 6, when the chef returns with crispy deep-fried rice with pork, bits of shrimp and mushroom in a crunchy fried glass noodle basket. “Take it with a spoon,” says Joe, as always, quite pleased with himself and his invention. With no appetite left for duck or dessert, we call for the bill, but out come chocolate fortune cookies, little custard-filled bao looking and tasting like cinnamon bunlettes and pastry hedgehogs on a custard sea with bits of lychee, a ribbon of chocolate and sorbet studded with chocolate chips.
Listen up vitriol-swilling bloggers: I insist the waiter charge us for the chef’s gifts that have been deducted from the bill – and, except for the $4 pot of tea (they seem to have taken us literally when I said we never paid for tea in Chinese restaurants) – this lovely gift to ourselves, morally accurate now, only cost $28.50 a person. Yes, Chinatown Brasserie was more expensive when it opened and the food not nearly as good, but now dim sum items are mostly $6 to $8, entrees linger on the low end of $15 to $27, with lobster at $34. There are salads and $11 wraps at lunch and a dim sum sampler with soup or sesame noodles for $12. If word gets around I suppose we’ll be fighting for our table next Christmas. But I’m not waiting. I’ll be back when I hear that Ng has rotated in a dozen dim sum I’ve not tasted before. I also need a reprise of the velvety seafood tofu that has disappeared in his seasonally changing menu.
380 Lafayette Street at Great Jones. 212 533 7000. Open Monday to Thursday from 11:30 to 11 pm, Friday 11:30 to midnight, Saturday 11 to midnight, and Sunday 11 am to 11 pm.
Kefi: It’s All Greek to Me
It’s cooler and not so noisy if you score a table downstairs at Kefi. Photo: Steven Richter
When Michael Psilakis cooks, Upper West Siders flock. Perhaps some of us were a little slow to embrace the marvelous Onera with its esoteric twists on Greek classics and affection for offal. Definitely not me. I was an early champion. Then Psilakis took his more provocative fusion to midtown – at Dona and Anthos and later, at Mia Dona – giving us the rustic home cooking of Kefi at thrillingly gentle prices where Onera had been. Soon lines wound out onto 79th Street for a postage-stamp size table in a sardine can.
So Kefi’s move uptown this winter to the wide open duplex space on Columbus – reservations at last, credit cards welcome – was a dream his uptown fans shared with the ambitious, obsessed and energetic chef. Once rather modest, almost unassuming, Psilakis comes to this Kefi on steroids, covered with laurels (even a Michelin star), Bon Appetit’s Chef of the Year and a star chef on Food & Wine’s annual roster.
There is a special elegance to the classic Greek spreads at Kefi: Photo: Steven Richter
And now, with layoffs, reduced salaries and tight budgets, the modest aspirations and gentle prices are even more welcome. No wonder the sidewalk buckled from the weight of the crowd fighting to get in from the very first hour. Even on our unforgettable early visit – when the electricity went out three times leaving the chefs chewing smoke from the stalled kitchen exhaust – the basic pleasures of the old Kefi menu rang true – marvelous spreads for the table to share on warmed pita, refined and full of flavor – mashed eggplant, pungent taramasalata, garlicky yogurt and elegant chickpea hummus. That perfectly cooked branzino and wonderfully moist lemon chicken had somehow emerged from the electric circus. I couldn’t wait to return and taste more.
Splendid grilled octopus with chickpeas is a house signature. Photo: Steven Richter
The lights are on again. Partner Donatella Arpaia got an electrician in to boost the power the next day and counted 500 dinners served that evening. The full court press had let up a bit Christmas Eve when we stopped in again with Naomi and Michael, good friends and early fans from the days we first tasted Psilakis’ food on Long Island. The crew wore red Santa caps and most seemed genuinely jolly. Though downstairs at a bare wooden round for six, not even our deft, gracious and wine-savvy server could get by without banging into my chair, hardly an example for uncaring busboys. At home cooking a family Christmas dinner, the chef sent apologies and a round of pastas.
Fried lemon slices and chickpeas enliven the calamari. Photo: Steven Richter
Most of the pastas – $9.95 to $13.95 – are wonderful, shareable as starters: Pappardelle-like flat noodles with pulled braised rabbit and graviera cheese, my favorite sheep’s milk dumplings with tomato, pine nuts and spicy lamb sausage or the half-size rigatoni with Greek sausage, peppers, onions, tomato and feta, the Road Food Warrior’s inevitable choice. (Although he and I agree the dish needs more pasta.) After sharing the spreads, the warm feta or the splendid fried calamari with chickpeas, fried lemon slices and a tzatziki dip I’d be happy with one of the meze instead of an entrée: the fine grilled octopus with chickpea and bean salad, meatballs with roasted garlic and olives in tomato sauce, or house-made Cypriot sausage with cucumber, radish, olives and more tzatziki, that fabulous garlicky yogurt. The menu calls the sweetbreads “crispy” but actually they are sensationally soft. We specified “rare” and got a rare experience in undisguised sweetbreads heaped with leaves of young spinach, shallot crips and fried capers. It’s a dish that alone would bring me back. And I recommend the first-rate hanger steak with sausage, broccoli rabe, manouri cheese and sun dried tomatoes at just $15.50.
I’ll be back for these sweetbreads with spinach and shallot crisps. Photo: Steven Richter
Would the food have been better if Psilakis had been directing the kitchen? I would have to suppose so. But the same dishes we couldn’t eat the first time – béchamel-swamped macaroni with spinach and similarly over-sauced moussaka – were unchanged a week later. Maybe we lack Psilakis’ childhood memory of grandma’s cooking or the macaroni of the aunts whose food he celebrates here. A braised lamb shank was stringy and dry. That could be fixed if anyone cares. Tiny overcooked lamb chops with gluey rice and tasteless spinach were inedible. And the pork was remarkably unremarkable in souvlaki (sandwiches are new here too) with a tumble of fabulous vegetables and feta. I hesitate to criticize fries that are not sadly soggy, but these are more than merely crisp, they’re oddly woody and tough, oversalted too. In fact, there’s a lot of salt in this food. Most of it boosts flavor of course, but I worry when I need to run cold water on my fingers to take off my rings.
Kefi was already loved. Now it’s the perfect Mecca for tough times. Delivery is promised soon. Let’s hope the crew can keep their good spirits in the press of unbridled love. I guess even I can go a day without mac ’n cheese.
505 Columbus Avenue between 84th and 85th Street. 212 873 0200. Open for lunch Tuesday to Saturday from 12 to 3 and Sunday from 11 to 3. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10 and Friday and Saturday 5 to 11.