Yunnan Kitchen on the Lower East Side
SOME dream of the redistribution of wealth. For eaters in search of fresh adventures, a more pressing agenda might be the redistribution of excellent ingredients.
So routine have fresh produce and heritage meats become at restaurants serving Italian, French or modern American cooking that I’ll understand if you fall asleep before finishing this sentence. Yet the revolution has not reached all quarters. Along Lexington Avenue, great Indian cooks are currying nondescript chicken; Thai chefs in Queens are making do with spongy pork; and in Brooklyn, Nigerian kitchens are stewing farmed fish that bears only a slight resemblance to the original article.
Of course, it’s impossible to fault restaurants run by recent immigrants for buying cheaper ingredients. Those Thai chefs can’t buy Berkshire pork if it means tripling prices and alienating core customers. But think of all the memorable meals we’d be eating if they could.
Before you file this complaint under what is referred to these days as White People Problems, consider that the kind of chicken, pork and fish I long to taste in these restaurants was the only kind anyone knew a century ago. Traditional recipes need traditional flavors.
Change may be on the way, but it’s coming slowly, limited mostly to a few Manhattan restaurants that have the financing and the cultural wherewithal to bring in customers who will pay for premium ingredients. The latest to try is Yunnan Kitchen, a sleek package of glass and exposed brick that opened in May on an unreconstructed block of the Lower East Side across from MZ Wang Discount Variety Store (“99¢ and Up”).
The restaurant takes a farmers’ market approach to the cuisine of Yunnan Province in China. Few New Yorkers know much about this food, which allows Travis Post, the chef, and Erika Chou, the owner, to take liberties without being pulled over by the authenticity police.
In late summer, a frequent special chalked on the blackboard wall next to the open kitchen was a salad of locally grown green tomatoes dressed with coriander leaves, golden flecks of garlic and crushed poppy and coriander seeds. Has any Yunnanese cook ever treated a crunchy, unripe tomato this way? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s a very refreshing salad, wherever it’s from.
Neither can I vouch for the precise origins of the small pile of “Yunnan spices” alongside fatty pork belly given a gentle cure and then fried until it blistered. I just know that I fell silent as I swiped this house-made bacon into the rust-colored powder again and again, trying to name all the spices. There was cumin, Sichuan pepper and hot chiles for sure, and maybe some star anise as well.
Whatever is in it, the blend is hard to resist, and the kitchen doesn’t try. The same powder is sprinkled over all the grilled skewers on the menu’s shao kao section, and if you order too many of these you may start to lose interest. The best are the little balls of ground lamb, spring onions, fresh ginger and pickled chive buds; the least compelling are chicken skewers, which received what flavor they had from those spices.
Yunnan Province borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, and its cooks have the light Southeast Asian touch with fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits and edible flowers, seen at Yunnan Kitchen in a plate of scrambled eggs with a fistful of jasmine blossoms. I appreciated the rich, soft eggs more than the jasmine, which began to cloy after a few forkfuls, though people whose hearts flutter for its romance-novel fragrance might disagree.
Mr. Post cooked at Franny’s in Brooklyn before heading off in January with Ms. Chou on a two-week tour of Yunnanese restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. This was not exactly an immersion course in the cuisine, which Mr. Post interprets with a Western accent.
Yunnan Kitchen is no immersion course, either. A first meeting with an unfamiliar cuisine that combines strange new flavors in ways you’d never imagined can stop you in your tracks. Apart from the overworked spice blend, I never had that sensation at Yunnan Kitchen. I came to trust the kitchen, but I agreed with a dining companion who said the next day, “I’m still in search of the Yunnan part of it.”
I continued my search across town in TriBeCa, where, in one of those odd happenstances that New York likes to toss down as if it were no big thing, another Yunnanese-inspired restaurant opened earlier this year.
The menu of Lotus Blue, at 110 Reade Street, promised novel tastes, with candied plums, pickled Yunnan turnips and banana blossoms. But in two meals, there was only one dish I wanted to finish: crunchy and meaty tiger prawns stir-fried in their shells with sugary bits of candied olives. I abandoned everything else after a few bites, including flavorless noodles in weak, oily broth; pork meatballs in a gooey, indistinct brown sauce; and a few other things I can barely recall.
After that unsatisfactory dalliance, I returned to Yunnan Kitchen with a fresh appreciation for its charms. Yes, I had liked the shrimp I’d met when I went astray. But the shrimp at Yunnan Kitchen were far better, deep fried with lime leaves, the crunchy shells seasoned with tart and fragrant lime salt, the flavors refreshingly direct and to the point.
And while there were no unmined veins of Yunnanese flavor lurking in stir-fried king mushrooms flavored with Allan Benton’s country ham, or in floppy, membranous wood ears with lengths of Chinese celery, both showed a firm understanding of how mushrooms should be treated. My favorite mushroom dish, though, was the mushroom rice cake with nicely crunchy bitter greens and fermented chiles. The whole thing is slicked with a sweet soy glaze and is surprisingly easy to finish before you realize it.
Mr. Post’s fresh, locavore sensibility leads to straightforward and uncomplicated cooking. In one key way this is a liability: nothing at Yunnan Kitchen builds to a pitch of flavor that makes you dream about your next visit. That may change as Mr. Post explores more deeply.
In the meantime, there are enough lovely tastes to build a good meal, and to suggest what we have to gain if restaurants start to spread the wealth around.