Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mission Chinese Food — Voted #1 New York Restaurant in 2012 by The New York Times

Mission Chinese Food is located at 154 Orchard Street

"LED ZEPPELIN was thumping and moaning at stadium volumes inside Mission Chinese Food. Everybody knew what Robert Plant was thinking:

The restaurant was originally in San Francisco.
The chef, Danny Bowien, and his collaborator, Anthony Myint,
opened the Lower East Side location this summer.
I am a traveler of both time and space

To be where I have been.

As for our little group, it wasn’t as clear. We were sitting below the wooden chairs and the Chinese dragon that hang from the ceiling, shouting into one another’s faces, gesturing like mimes and attempting to put an order together.

They talk of days for which they sit and wait

All will be revealed.

Outside on Orchard Street, they were waiting, all right, with plenty of time to peer in at the backlighted takeout-style pictures of kung pao pastrami and ma po tofu. Beneath the photos was a keg, and free beer in plastic cups for anybody who could fit inside the door. Unseen others were sitting in bars nearby, wondering whether they would order a third round before the phone rang.

When patrons are notified that their table is ready, they go down a few steps,
pass behind a curtain, and enter a narrow corridor separated by
one long window from the kitchen.
When the call came at last, they would return to Mission Chinese Food, go down a few steps, pass behind a curtain and enter a narrow corridor separated from the kitchen by one long window. It must have been hot as a forest fire in the kitchen, because the burners were raging and Danny Bowien, the chef, was in swim trunks.

All I see turns to brown

As the sun burns the ground.

Hot woks run fast. Minutes after we’d ordered, our table was covered with plates. The ma po tofu that had looked impressive on the menu board was staggering in real life. Ivory cubes of bean curd were sunk deep inside quantities of simmered pork and fermented fava paste under a shimmering lake of chile oil.

It burned and buzzed in the pulsating manner of Sichuan, but in China the meat would be a mere seasoning. Mr. Bowien’s version emphasized and amplified the pork to the point where it knocked you down and left you happily breathless.

The 41-seat restaurant accepts reservations onlyfor a few tables and seats at the bar.
We cooled down for a minute with smashed cucumbers that had the old-fashioned tang of barrel-fermented Lower East Side half-sours. Then came the cumin lamb, and conversation (never exactly free-flowing) ceased completely. Hissing on a hot iron platter were pickled long beans, powerfully fragrant fresh bay leaves, sticky dates that we chewed as if they were taffy, and slabs of lamb breast, thick cut around a bone that jutted out like a stick from a Popsicle.

Robert Plant was keening now. He wanted to take me there, baby baby. But I was there already, a lamb rib in one hand.

Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues.
His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration
 and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it.
Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it. He grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc.

The story of how Mr. Bowien — the Korean-born, Oklahoma City-raised, retired indie band frontman; dark-horse world champion of pesto; Food Network reject, and serial workaholic — ended up pillaging and celebrating Chinese cuisine does not follow a straight line.

In brief, he and a collaborator, Anthony Myint, were reverse engineering the cuisine of celebrated restaurants from around the world. They did this two nights a week in a not particularly celebrated Chinese restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. Somehow this led to their deciding to invent what Mr. Bowien came to call “Americanized Oriental food” with the blessing of the restaurant’s owners, who dished out chow mein in the same dining room.

The rest can be told in a montage: Long lines. Newspaper and magazine clippings. The Manhattan skyline.

Meals at the restaurant grab hold of tradition and
hit the accents hard, going heavy on the funk.
Because he more or less makes stuff up, Mr. Bowien is free to hallucinate dishes like kung pao pastrami, with a riotously smoky housemade pastrami. It’s laughably inauthentic, but the only reason you laugh while eating is because you can’t believe how well it plays out.

He is also free to make his own mistakes. A recent take on mouthwatering chicken, a Sichuan classic, substituted a chicken roulade stuffed with pickled ramps for the traditional plain boiled chicken. But the roulade was so thickly sliced and tightly wrapped that there was almost nothing for the hot-and-numbing dressing to cling to. (Mr. Bowien apparently thought so, too, and now he uses poached chicken thigh.) And a delicate monkfish liver sashimi was trampled underfoot by an intense soy dipping sauce.

Such stumbles are rare. More common is the random sequencing of the meal. Apart from the night our rice (steamed with nutty grains of barley) showed up just before the check, this was only a minor problem, but it did tend to pit subtle dishes against more fiery ones. You can guess which team lost. A version of chawanmushi, an egg custard topped with raw scallop, a little confetti of green apple and comma-sized basil seeds, was so quiet and defenseless I wanted to take it into another room and bolt the door.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Bowien called the restaurant’s cuisine
“whimsical Chinese.” “It’s not fine dining. It’s not authentic.
It’s not from one region. We’re just trying to do
everything backwards.”
This is one downside of tearing an old cuisine away from a culture that has been working out ways to extract the most pleasure from a meal for centuries. But you can write off that loss when the upside brings dishes like the amazing salt-cod fried rice, rich with the oils of slowly poached mackerel that slick each grain of rice. Or the take on Sichuan fish and pickled vegetable stew. Mr. Bowien spikes the stew with peanuts boiled in Old Bay seasoning, which is both certifiably crazy and certifiably delicious.

A bit like the rock stars who neglected to pay royalties to blues masters like Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, many American chefs have freely appropriated the cuisines of other cultures, repackaging them and selling them at a premium. They might do well to study the example of Mission Chinese Food, which gives 75 cents to a food bank for each entree sold.

The most expensive dish is $15;
four people can eat like pashas for less than $100.
The restaurant could almost certainly charge twice as much as it does on Orchard Street, where currently the most expensive dish is $15 and where four people can eat like pashas for less than $100. The prices (like those at Pok Pok Ny, in Brooklyn, opened by another out-of-towner) should give some proprietors of other loud, cramped, chaotic local restaurants a shiver of guilt, and cause them to glance nervously over their shoulders. Charging fine-dining prices in a dive may bring you gold, but it won’t buy you a stairway to heaven." — Pete Wells from The New York Times

Mission Chinese Food

154 Orchard Street (Rivington Street), Lower East Side; (212) 529-8800;

ATMOSPHERE A busy takeout counter in front, a small dining room in back where the only frills are fake flowers and an illuminated dragon.

SERVICE Cheerfully struggling to keep up.

SOUND LEVEL Like a rock show. For sonic relief, visit a restroom.

RECOMMENDED T-1000 cocktail; smashed cucumbers; chilled buckwheat noodles; savory egg custard; Westlake rice porridge; salt-cod fried rice; broccoli beef brisket; kung pao pastrami; cumin lamb breast; catfish à la Sichuan.

DRINKS AND WINE Wine and beer come from a tap. Cocktails are as gonzo as the kung pao pastrami, and as good.

PRICES Small dishes, $4 to $13; larger dishes, $6 to $15.

HOURS Friday to Tuesday, noon to 3 p.m.; Thursday to Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight.

RESERVATIONS Accepted through for a few tables and seats at the bar.


WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambiance, service and price taken into consideration.

No comments:

Post a Comment

"Be as smart as you can, but remember that it is always better to be wise than to be smart."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...