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Sep 13, 2011 10:23 PM

Wong is Officially Open

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:

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.

Cafe Asean
117 W 10th St, New York, NY 10011

7 Cornelia St, New York, NY 10014

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  1. Thanks for the report! I was skeptical when I read the menu at first, but the meal you had sounds very promising. Interesting that this is a neighborhood without a lot of great East Asian options that cook more traditional food, and now we've got both Wong and Red Farm, both cooking more creative interpretations.

    3 Replies
    1. re: kathryn

      I think we're seeing a lot of "modern Asian" all over town, no? (I can't name a lot of examples, but Danji, Kin Shop and Bao come to mind.) It's just that we used to call it "Asian fusion" before "fusion" became a wordy dird.

      I thought the small plates were a bit stronger than the large ones. It would probably be a good place to bring a few friends to try all of the small plates on the menu. The Cha Ca La Vong also looked interesting, but unfortunately I couldn't get my dining companion (who doesn't like cooked fish) to try it. I get the sense that the menu isn't very firmly established, yet, so I'm hoping it still there on my next visit.

      Oh -- thanks for reminding me of Red Farm. It is right under my nose and I have to try it. Next meal out. If you try Red Farm, Wong or Fatty Cue, I implore you to report back!!

      346 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019

      1. re: michelleats

        I apologize in advance if this is a stupid question, but Bao? I tried searching for it, and couldn't find it.

        1. re: vegivore

          I had in mind (the now defunct but possibly soon-to-be-resuscitated?) Bar Bao when I wrote that, but maybe it should be an umbrella term for all of Michael Bao's numerous restaurants!

    2. Anybody else been to this restaurant? We live close by and it seems to be doing well; we were going to try to have dinner there this weekend.

      1. We had a nice dinner here on Saturday. The check was something like $99 before tip, and our meal was a leisurely 1 hour and 45 minutes.

        The current menu is actually pretty different from the one on their web site--much longer. For example, I didn't see the first three appetizers on the menu, and they've definitely added more items, like spicy duck meatballs, which we didn't try this time but may next time. So more like 7-8 appetizers, etc. It took us a while to digest all of the choices.

        Because they are so organic and seasonally focused, I assume Wong's menu will change substantially every few weeks. I overheard a server explain that their peach based dessert was no longer available due to the peach season being basically over.

        For drinks: my husband went for their Saranac root beer, his favorite, which is rarely served at restaurants. Nice touch of serving it in a tall beer glass, too.

        I had a Thai Lady Boy cocktail of gin, Thai basil, celery, and something else, but the drink was in DIRE need of simple syrup and some brightness. Far too acidic. Far too herbal and bitter. I suspect the basil was over-muddled. Way too much celery and completely unbalanced. I drank maybe half of it, and nobody ever bothered to take it away. Bleh.

        I liked the little naan bread they serve with curry, homemade paneer, and a sprig of fresh mint, in lieu of a bread basket. Our server explained that we should to tear up some of the mint to go with the naan. The curry and paneer sauce was excellent but hard to eat -- the paneer was in chunks big enough that we ended up using knifes to spread it around even though the presented was that of a dipping sauce. Flavors were excellent. But our hot little puffy naan immediately deflated due to the drafty AC and became cold. I think they really need to figure out a basket/napkin/some other presentation to stop this from happening.

        Our starter of Scallops with crispy duck tongue, cucumber, jellyfish, was good, but the jellyfish and cucumber didn't really belong among the two scallops and two little breaded balls of crispy duck tongue. Scallops were perfectly cooked, just under opaque in the center, with a good crust. Loved the two piping hot balls of crispy duck tongue, and they reminded me of tete de cochon. Excellent spicing, taste, and texture.

        My rice noodles with pork, sea cucumber, shiitake mushrooms, a fried egg, and macademia nuts was very good but a little one note after a while. I found the tapered rice noodles a little too slipper to eat. Perhaps it would have been a bit better formed as sheets. Not sure what the fried egg added, but the taste was nice and hearty, and good for a chilly night.

        My husband had a duck breast with roasted acorn squash that was very flavorful (it's not listed on the online menu and I can't recall all of the components) and I think had some Chinese five spice elements. Excellent quality ingredients, and well cooked, but less adventurous than my dish.

        The duck a la plum dessert was awesome. Sweet, rich, and creamy duck ice cream. Perfectly spiced and fruity star-anised poached plums, in a delectable plum-based sauce. Very balanced. Not overwhelming sweet like so many desserts you find these days. Complex. Fascinating. Crispy sesame tuile on the ice cream. Paired with a wonderful shortbread and not-to-sweet plum soda. I basically licked the bowl clean. Very, very memorable!

        Overall, a promising dinner. They still have some kinks to work out, and some of the dishes didn't really gel overall, but that duck a la plum ice cream is a stunner!

        3 Replies
        1. re: kathryn

          I neglected to mention the very good crispy cauliflower side we shared. Deep fried cauliflower, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. Served with a lovely peanut sauce. Delicious!

          1. re: kathryn

            Thanks, Kathryn! I gotta say I'm impressed Chef Wong has the chuztpah to serve sea cucumber in a dish.

            1. re: kathryn

              thanks for the review and the link kathryn. It seems like an intersting , casual place. Very convenient for me.

            2. Thanks michelleats for this great review. Have you been back? The menu and dishes look very interesting. Kathryn, how is the noise level? I guess it must be fine since you had a leisurely meal there.

              3 Replies
              1. re: scoopG

                Thanks for reading, scoop. I haven't been back, sadly -- not for lack of desire, but because I've been out of town + trying to poke my nose into all these other new restaurants springing up in the neighborhood + testing some good-looking recipes on house guests + etc....

                Re: noise level, it was about half full to 3/4 full on our visit and at the higher end of comfortable for conversation. My guess is that it can get loud, there, at full capacity.

                1. re: scoopG

                  A little loud as it filled up, but not as insane as, say, Locanda Verde or Osteria Morini or a Momofuku. The room was about 70-80% full when we left. On occasion, I had to repeat myself because my husband couldn't hear me clearly.

                  Locanda Verde
                  377 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013

                  Osteria Morini
                  218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012

                  1. re: kathryn

                    OK - thanks michelleats and kathryn.

                2. Thanks for the review. I tried Wong last night and enjoyed a special appetizer of egg with mushrooms with an asian dressing as well as the duck and a side of cauliflower. I had the chocolate pomegranate dessert which was good but I'm curious to try the duck ice cream next time.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: peter j

                    Thanks for your report, Peter! It's great to read about the new dishes, there. Finding a recent menu online seems to be pretty nigh impossible, though the restaurant does have a Facebook page, which has pictures of a few menu offerings:

                    1. re: michelleats

                      Wong just received two stars from the new NY Times critic Pete Wells. His writing style is so much better than Sifton's.


                    2. re: peter j

                      What's an Asian dressing? A sesame vinaigrette, perhaps?

                      1. re: Pan

                        Yes a vinaigrette with a bit of sesame oil but I didn't note the exact ingredients.

                        1. re: peter j

                          That's specific enough for me to understand what it is. Thanks.

                          I guess now that it's been reviewed, it will be hard to get a reservation.

                          1. re: Pan

                            Asian vinaigrette's most often use different kinds of vinegars than French or Italian: rice or plum wine vinegars, sometimes sweet potato vinegar...there are others.

                            1. re: penthouse pup

                              I just find the expression too broad to be clear. I've had Japanese salads with carrot vinaigrette as well as sesame vinaigrette, and those are just two examples from only one particular East Asian cuisine (with various regional variations). That said, I did guess right in this instance.