At night, the tiny Greenwich Village restaurant called simply Wong is darker than I like restaurants to be – which is my subtle way of apologizing for how grainy the photos from last night turned out. But within only a few months of opening, the eatery created by Malaysian-born Chinese chef Simpson Wong has become one of the brightest lights on the New York City dining scene. Finally, cuisine from as far away as you can get is wildly “local” at the same time.
Though there are some reasonably exotic dishes on the menu, this is not a case of “Bizarre Foods” meets Molecular Gastronomy, thank goodness. What Simpson Wong serves, mostly, is traditional Chinese (and/or Vietnamese) dishes upgraded from anything we’re probably used to. And since the concept was born while the still-young Wong was recovering from a heart attack and shopping for his health in New York’s farmers markets, the first thing your taste buds notice is how wonderful the ingredients are. The notion of New York’s first “Asian Locavore” restaurant was born.
One of the more touching aspects of the menu, especially once Wong himself describes each dish, is how many things hark back to recipes his parents cooked when he was a child. The incredible shrimp fritters, for instance, are a tribute to his mother, and they’re a festival of temperatures, tastes and, this being Asian cuisine, textures. But the Duck Bun pictured above is a tribute to the chef’s late father – who used to come home from work with a cooked duck late at night and prepare something of the sort.
One of my favorite dishes at Wong, and surely carrying one of my favorite stories, is the Lobster Egg Foo Young, made with salted duck egg yolks, leeks and an intriguing crumble of the dried shrimp Asians have made wherever they move in the world. A cheap “peasant” dish that resembles a loose omelet, Egg Foo Young screamed out to Wong for an upgrade – initially with shrimp. “But,” he pronounced matter-of-factly on my radio show, “if you can use shrimp, then you can use lobster.” With such logic, culinary classics are born.
Considering the menu’s love affair with duck and all the attention this dessert’s been paid, I figured I had a date with pastry chef Judy Chen’s Duck a la Plum. And boy was I scared, since my idea of dessert runs roughly from cheesecake to pecan pie. Turns out, the dessert is very subtle, and very delicious – the “roast duck ice cream” so mild and creamy and sweet that virtually anybody would like it. Same for the star anise-poached plums, the crispy sugar tuile and the cookie zapped with Chinese five spice powder. All in all, it was an incredible ending to an incredible dinner.