As a rule, Chinese food, with its intricate, ancient flavors, doesn’t lend itself to the madcap chaos of Asian-fusion cooking. Foie gras tastes fine (delicious, actually) in a light shabu-shabu soup (Masa), but try to serve it up in dim sum (66), and you might find, as Jean-Georges Vongerichten did to his dismay, a mischievous English critic comparing the taste of your shrimp–and– foie gras dumplings to “fishy liver-filled condoms.” So it was with some trepidation that I booked a table at Yumcha, a new restaurant on Bedford Street in the West Village. As it happens, the executive chef, Angelo Sosa, has worked with Vongerichten (at Jean Georges), so it’s not surprising that Yumcha (Cantonese for “drink tea”) has a polished, high-minded feel. The room is colored in clean lines of black and red and adorned with stylish square lanterns. The small open kitchen is fronted by an elegant sushi-style dining bar. The menu contains $8 pots of tea imported directly from a teahouse in Beijing, and frog’s legs, which you are supposed to chase down with sips of pineapple consommé.
I ordered the frog’s legs first, hoping, as critics sometimes do, for a bizarre train wreck of a dish, but I’m sad to report that they’re excellent. The legs are dabbed with a kind of chili-sesame mayonnaise, which the pineapple drink dissolves in a pleasing way. Next came a bowl of fresh mussels, flown in from Nova Scotia, which the chef tosses with garlic and tiny leaves of Thai basil and sinks in a commendable broth flavored with black beans and XO sauce. I enjoyed the upscale variation of cold sesame noodles (Japanese udon instead of the regular Chinese noodles, and peanut sauce and orange sorbet instead of sesame), and the pork ribs, which aren’t really ribs at all but pieces of tender, fatty meat glazed with a smooth sesame sauce. The tea-smoked chicken was ordinary, but something called “drunken crab salad” (the peekytoe crab is spritzed with Chinese wine, a play on drunken chicken) turned out to be a cooling, even artful dish, set on a bed of soft cardamom-flavored custard.
Most Chinese meals, fusion or otherwise, tend to devolve into a family-style free-for-all, but Sosa manages to focus your attention on the plate. His “Peking”-duck entrée consists of a crisp-skinned duck breast expertly sautéed in the Continental way and glazed with a lightly sweet plum sauce. Like you’ll find at lots of trendy joints in town, there are veal cheeks on the menu, only here they’re tossed with slivers of green apple and steamed to a nice tenderness in a small clay pot. Sweet-and-sour sauce makes its inevitable appearance in a bowl of wide chow fun noodles topped with grilled monkfish, and Sichuan beef turns out to be two medallions of filet mignon garnished with spicy eggplant and a touch of mint. Best of all is a dish called steamed yellowtail snapper. The fish is the color of pink coral, it’s perfectly fresh, and it’s garnished with tiny Chinese fungus mushrooms sautéed in soy and ginger, and a sprinkling of lily bulbs, which are shiny and white like seashells and have a pleasingly crunchy texture.
Unlike with most crackpot Asian-fusion productions, everything Asian about Yumcha seems more or less correct. The wait staff wear old-fashioned, pre-communist cotton outfits trimmed in red. The spring rolls come to the table with a bowl of mustard sauce (the way they’re served in upscale restaurants in Beijing), and the dim sum are more carefully and professionally presented than the usual rugby-scrum experience down in Chinatown.
The desserts don’t seem particularly Chinese, which is probably a good thing. I liked the poached pear, which is placed on a wheel of creamy rice pudding. There are also beignets, designed to be dipped into a sauce made with condensed milk, and an okay pot de crème colored with green tea. The artisanal teas from Beijing have the usual lunatic names, and the most expensive one (the $8 variety called Cloudy Flower Mood), comes in a small glass pot with tiny floating chrysanthemums. I wish I could say something nasty about my pot of Cloudy Flower Mood, but the fact is I enjoyed it so much, I ordered it twice.
Like Yumcha, Bombay Talkie is a pleasant, inventively packaged neighborhood restaurant conceived around the dining rituals of a far-off land. It’s a crowded, modestly priced, generally satisfying place, and although it’s not as ambitious as Yumcha, its presence amid a nondescript cluster of shops on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea is a testament to the depth and quality of the dining scene in the city today. The name refers to the jolly, frenetic world of Indian cinema, and so the walls are painted with murals of colorful Mumbai movie stars, all dressed in turbans and jewels and waving their hands in the air. An LCD monitor glows over the sleek little bar downstairs, so you can contemplate an endless loop of Bollywood movies as you sip cocktails tinged with pomegranate juice. The food is straightforward Indian (as opposed to wacky Indian fusion), with big, curling dosas from the south, a reasonably fiery pork vindaloo from Goa, and a whole amalgam of chats, naans, and kathi rolls designed to evoke the vibrant universe of Indian street food.
To this end, there is a “street bites” section on the menu, a “curbside” section, and one called “by the roadside.” This last list contains a serviceable chicken tikka masala, and an interesting dish called nargisi kof-ta, which consists of a version of Scotch egg covered in ground lamb and drenched with a rosewater-cashew sauce. My helping of nargisi kofta was okay, although the shrimp in my order of five-spice shrimp seemed to have been frozen since pre-Mughal times. On the “street bites” section, there’s a good lamb kathi roll (to Indians what the cheesesteak is to Philadelphians) folded in silver foil. The curry hounds at my table said polite things about the tandoori-smoked eggplant and the chicken chettinad, a messy stew bombed with lots of red chilies and cardamom. You can take the edge off these moderately fiery dishes with several temperate desserts, like carrot halwa, and an excellent selection of ice creams and gelati. Try the creamy fig gelato, which, I can practically guarantee, is not sold from any curbside cart in Mumbai.
29 Bedford St., at Downing St.; 212-524-6800
189 Ninth Ave., nr. 21st St.; 212-249-1900
Address:29 Bedford St., at Downing St.; 212-524-6800
Hours: 6 P.M. to midnight daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $13; entrées, $16 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Frog’s legs or mussels with XO sauce, “Peking” duck or steamed snapper, pear with creamy rice pudding.
Note: I’m no fan of unisex bathrooms, but the one at Yumcha is worth a visit to admire the orange dragons capering along the walls.
Address:189 Ninth Ave., nr. 21st St.; 212-242-1900
Hours: 11 A.M. to 11 P.M., Monday through Thursday. 10 A.M. to midnight, Friday and Saturday. 10 A.M. to 11 P.M., Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $8; entrées, $15 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Potato dosa, nargisi kofta or pork vindaloo, carrot halwa or black-Mission-fig gelato.
Note: Dine downstairs if you can, since the upstairs is loud, far from the kitchen (slower service), and you can’t watch Indian movies on the LCD.