By way of background, Simpson Wong of Cafe Asean, recently opened an upmarket, locavore, southeast Asian restaurant on Cornelia St. -- the restaurant row of the West Village. We went just a day after the official opening Sept. 12, but it's been unofficially open since last Thursday.
Photos here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/09/w...
It's nearly impossible to peg down a restaurant in its first week or even its first month, of course -- but the mostly well balanced, creative and delicious dishes we tried certainly bode well.
Instead of a humdrum bread basket, the restaurant serves naan with house-made paneer, "curry sauce", and a sprig of fresh mint prior to the meal. The paneer was excellent, simple, but exceptionally fresh and flavorful. The brown curry sauce that topped off the paneer reminded me a bit of the curry sauce served with Malaysian roti canai. We didn't know exactly what to do with the mint sprigs, which came attractively presented in a bottle of water. I ultimately pulled off half a leaf and chewed it with a small bite of paneer and curry sauce. I didn't try the naan, but it smelled wonderful and was clearly fresh off the griddle.
We ordered two small plates and two large. The first small plate, Newport Steak Tataki with Rau Ram, Pho, Bone Marrow Brioche and Amagansett Salt, came in two courses. The first course was the tataki with rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro), Amangansett salt, pickled red onion and chopped, roasted peanuts. The beef was a good cut, flavorful, fresh and sliced just a bit more thickly than usual for tataki. It was assertive enough to stand up to the assertive, fresh rau ram. My one nitpick was that there was a bit too much salt in the dish for my tastes, but my dining companion thought it was fine.
The second half of the steak tataki order was pho with bone marrow brioche. Bone marrow brioche included tiny slices of good, well toasted brioche topped with bone marrow butter and onion marmalade. The onion marmalade, while very good, overpowered the bone marrow, though you could still detect the rich mouthfeel. Pho was overly sweet and extremely heavy on the five-spice, but rich and concentrated, and otherwise well made.
Our second small plate, the Scallops with Crispy Duck Tongue, Cucumber, Jellyfish, included two fair-sized, fairly fresh scallops, nicely seared. The crispy duck tongue turned out to be fritters made out of finely minced duck tongue, breaded and deep fried. They were delicious, moist -- almost like a duxelle in the center -- and flavored with sweet-smelling five spice. This sweetness went well with the savory scallops and slightly acidic pickled cucumber. Although the jellyfish (hidden under the greens in the picture) added a bit of pleasant textural contrast, I don't know if they were really necessary in terms of flavor. They were a bit too salty from over-marination in soy sauce.
Our first "large plate" was the Hong Kong Pork Chop with Asian Pear, Endive and Grilled Pineapple. The pork chop was dredged in flour and pan fried, then served with a surprisingly restrained, not-too-overpowering, not-too-gloppy sweet and sour sauce. I usually detest the horrible technicolor orange sauce known as "sweet and sour", but here, it actually worked pretty well, to my surprise. There were two small rounds of char siu flavored pork tenderloin to the side, which were very tender (in contrast to the slightly tough pork chop), well flavored and probably the best thing on the plate. Thinly sliced Asian pear had been lightly pickled in vinegar and lemon juice, which resulted in a pleasant contrast of sweet and sour. Endive with chopped scallions added a nice bitter note, as well. There were maybe a few too many disparate components on the plate and it was sometimes hard to see how they all fit together, but many of these components were very good.
My dining companion also ordered a Vietnamese Pizza with Isan Sausage, Fennel and Stinging Nettle from the "Rice, Noodles and Flatbread" section of the menu. It came with kale, rather than stinging nettle (which I believe is only really available in these parts in the springtime) and red peppers instead of fennel. The crust of the pizza was similar to banh xeo, a wheat and rice flour Vietnamese crepe that includes coconut milk in the batter. The Isan sausage topping the pizza was pleasantly sour and overall, the dish was innovative and interesting. The problem, though, was that it was also much too greasy. There was a thick layer of oil on the pizza (the bright sheen in the picture) that made what would've otherwise been an enjoyable dish a challenge to eat.
Luckily, dessert fared much better. Chef Judy Chen heads up the dessert-making at Wong and currently offers only two options, a Duck a la Plum with Roast Duck Ice Cream, Star Anise-Poached Plums, Crispy Sugar Tuile, and Five-Spice Cookie and a Local Peach Shortcake with Brown Butter Cake, Peach-Ginger Compote and Sour Cream Topping. Of course we went with the former, since it sounded so interesting. One of our hostesses told us the ice cream had been made with cream infused with the fattier pieces of roast duck. It wasn't actually very ducky -- if we hadn't known that duck was an ingredient, we probably wouldn't've guessed -- but it was very good, with a hard-to-identify, interesting and enjoyable flavor. The texture was very good as well, but it melted too quickly in the heat of the restaurant. Plums were sweet and only lightly flavored with star anise (a good thing as more would've overwhelmed other, more subtle flavors). I didn't have the five spice cookie, but it had the texture of shortbread and my dining companion devoured it quickly, so it must've been good. There was an additional, undisclosed component, plum soda, which our server recommended we drink after we at the other components on the plate. The plum soda was homemade, very plummy and very, very good -- really a nice palate cleanser.
Water and wine were served out of large Erlenmeyer flasks and poured into shiny-new glasses, which, to judge by the clarity, had never been used, before. Wine pours were generous and the selection by the glass seemed fair, though I didn't give it a close inspection. (My dining companion's red zinfandel was very fruity, probably a Californian, and his dry, sparkling white had a slightly unpleasant bitter aftertaste, but went well with several of our dishes.) Right now, the restaurant only has a wine and beer license, but they do offer a house cocktail, presumably mixed with wine.
A note on decor: The place is charming and hip. White brick walls, salvaged public elementary school style chairs, and a wait staff all dressed in plaid shirts (who checked in frequently and said "I'm so glad" whenever we said we liked a dish) strongly evoked Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- but in a good way. It was a tad warm in the space -- the doors were open with no air conditioning running -- which probably won't be a real problem for the remainder of the year. If they still don't have air conditioning by next summer, it could become significantly less comfortable.
In the open kitchen, Chef Wong, Chef Chen and their staff were hard at work the evening we went. Unlike another bold diner, I didn't have the chutzpah to go and take pictures of the chefs doing their thing, but the scene was a happy one: Everyone was busy, no one had the frazzled, frantic look of chefs opening a restaurant and transitioning from homestyle food (Cafe Asean) to something significantly more haute. I wish these folks the best of luck and plan to be back to try more.
117 W 10th St, New York, NY 10011
7 Cornelia St, New York, NY 10014