A Hamburger Today
RedFarm: Chinese-American Done Justice in the West Village
529 Hudson Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n Charles and W 10th; map); 212-792-9700; redfarmnyc.com
Service: Prompt and friendly
Setting: Good-looking space but narrow and loud, dominated by a communal table
Must-Haves: Smoked salmon 'bruschetta,' pork belly, grilled and sauteed beef, soup dumplings
Cost: Starters and dim sum $6-12, mains $16-29
High-end dim sum is what Ed Schoenfeld and Joe Ng do best. The former is the man behind Chinatown Brasserie, Shun Lee, and Shun Lee Palace; the latter, a dim sum chef Schoenfeld met in Sunset Park and brought on board at Chinatown Brasserie. Almost a year ago, the chef-restauteur pair launched the RedFarm stall in the upscale food court FoodParc, where we loved the dumplings and pastrami egg rolls and quite a bit else. And finally, after a number of delays and what seemed like weeks of preview dinners, they've opened their newest restaurant, also called RedFarm and backed by Jeffrey Chodorow, in a West Village townhouse.
The menu ranges from traditional to clever, expected to surprising, but to call it "fusion" cuisine is misleading—because a lot of the dishes are straight up Chinese-American. Chinese-American food is distinct from any traditional Chinese regional cuisine, but it's nonetheless had enough of a history and development to be considered a fully developed cuisine unto itself. This is the food of New York Chinese-American institutions like Shun Lee Palace and the Ollie's Noodle chain—elevated, rethought, and cooked with more than a hint of irony, but a relentless attention to good technique and flavor development.
The Spicy Crispy Beef ($12 for full-sized portion, sampler-sized portion pictured) represents the ethos of the restaurant more than any other dish on the menu: take a dish that's a staple of the Chinese-American steam table, available on Cheesecake Factory menus across the country, but make it crispier, beefier, and tastier than anyone else, and you've got a winner.
Order the appetizer sampler for $19, and you'll also get tasting-sized plates of spicy Shrimp Stuffed Jalapeño Poppers, crisp Curried Tofu, a seasonal Heirloom Tomato Salad, and some awesome Smoked Cucumbers. Crisp and refreshing, yet rich and smoky at the same time, they make perfect drinking partners.
For better or worse, the Katz's Pastrami Egg Roll (1 for $6) is the dish this restaurant is going to be known for (you can't fault the tender, salty pastrami inside and the incredible lacy spring roll wrapper), but the Kowloon Filet Mignon Tarts (2 for $8.50) were better. An extraordinarily tender bite of sweet soy-glazed beef on a miso-filled tart shell with slivers of blanched asparagus and sweet pickled ginger. You'll want to eat the whole thing in one bite.
Smoked Salmon & Eggplant 'Bruschetta' (2 for $8) was possibly the best appetizer in a lineup of standouts. Smoked salmon and American caviar mixed with creamy avocado and spooned on top of a faultlessly fried disk of crisp eggplant. Between this, the spring roll, and the stuffed jalapeños, I challenge anyone to find a more capable fry cook in this city.
If you've ever had moo yang in Thailand and found that none of the versions in New York do the dish justice, the BBQ'd 'Black Food' Berkshire Pork Belly ($12) might be the answer you seek. Sweet and savory, fatty and tender, it pairs the smoky char of the grill with a hint of kaffir lime and soy along with hot Thai bird peppers and wolfberries. After you finish your pork (don't blink, it'll happen fast), you find that the slices of portobello mushroom underneath have been dutifully absorbing all of the juices, making them every bit as meaty and delicious.
Joe Ng is a master of dim sum, which we are perpetually reminded of with each stretchy, slightly chewy, negligee-thin dumpling wrapper or every juicy, briny shrimp that pops in our mouths, perfectly crunchy, without a hint of chewiness. We first tasted both in the Shu Mai Shooters (2 for $7), which had shrimp so juicy we didn't even need the buttery shot of broth underneath. (We drank it anyway.)
A parade of creative dumplings follows. Kung Pao Chicken & Scallion Dumplings (6 for $12) take the Chinese-American version of the Sichuan dish (not spicy, with peanuts and bell peppers), and wraps it all up in perfectly fried thin dumpling skins. Skewered Shrimp, Mushroom & Watercress Dumplings (4 for $10) have more shrimp bound with watercress. They're served kebab-style, on a skewer.
We're going to go ahead and give the Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings (4 for $10) first seed in the New York Soup Dumpling playoffs. While the skins are ever-so-slightly thicker than we'd like, the filling is extraordinary. Intensely flavored with crab, pork, mushrooms, and yellow leeks, it's got the rich mouthfeel of a demi-glace. Place one of these purses on your spoon, nibble a hole, suck out the juice, and you'll be left with sticky, pork-and-crab scented lips to smack long after the dumpling is gone.
The sole disappointment in the dumpling category was the Crispy Duck & Crab Dumplings (4 for $12) which were well-formed, but damned if we could tell that the meat in there was duck and crab after the fried shell and curry sauce.
On the other hand, as hokey as the presentation is, you won't find a single thing wrong with the "Pac Man" Shrimp Dumplings ($4 for 12). More of the perfect shrimp inside little ghost-shaped pouches with onion seed eyes. Eat them before the deep-fried sweet potato Pac Man (served, oddly enough, on a pile of guacamole) gets 'em. Corn, jicama, and yellow chives make for a light and crunchy mix inside delightfully stretchy translucent green wrappers in the Vegetable and Chive Dumplings (4 for $8)
After the seriously delicious procession of dim sum, it's almost a disappointment to have to move on to main courses, and indeed, the Three Chili Chicken ($18) was nothing special. Sure, the chicken was tender and the peppers fresh, but it was lacking the spark of creativity and the genius of craftsmanship that mark the dim sum here (don't expect any real heat in the dish either). Fortunately, things made a quick turnaround.
Take your classic dry-style beef chow fun, sub out the beef for shredded duck, and add a touch of preserved mustard greens—and you've got Wide Rice Noodles with Shredded Roast Duck & Pickled Mustard Greens ($16), a noodle dish to reckon with. The stir-frying here is much more accomplished than with the chicken, giving you plenty of smoky wok hei, though we could have used a bit more salt. (Or maybe we just miss the MSG?)
Sautéed Black Cod with Yellow Leeks ($29) was a bit confusing. Tender, moist hunks of black cod in a sweet glaze with snow peas, yellow leek, radish, and a mix of roasted mushrooms (could this be the world's first stir-fry featuring chanterelles?); it's not quite clear what the XO-ish sauce of dried scallop and peppers on the side was for. Dipping? Drizzling? A composed plate would have worked better here than a jumbled stir-fry.
The best of the mains was the Grilled & Sauteed Short Ribs, Cauliflower & Broccoli ($23). Imagine the very best Beef & Broccoli you can, and you'll get close to this dish in your mind. Fatty short rib that's first grilled until it's got some nice smoky char, then stir-fried with hot green peppers, charred broccoli, and cauliflower. The ribs become remarkably tender through the dual cooking process, their copious fat melting in your mouth along with their sweet soy glaze. it's Korean-style kalbi meets beef & broccoli.
A side of Sautéed Snow Pea Leaves, Fresh Waterchestnuts, Garlic ($14) is a wise move. Emerald green and snappy snow pea leaves with a subdued garlic flavor. The fresh water chestnuts have the moist crispness of jicama and an underlying sweetness that you don't get from the typical canned version.
Chocolate Pudding ($7) for dessert feels almost like a throwaway, but it's good pudding nonetheless. Rich and creamy but not heavy, somewhere between a fudge and a mousse.
Really, you know what we'd recommend you order for dessert? Another round of dumplings. It's the strength of the dim sum that will have us coming back again. We didn't love everything about RedFarm: the long, communal table that dominates the dining room makes for occasionally awkward seating; the noise levels are off the charts, even when the restaurant isn't quite full, making for difficult conversation. But we weren't really chatting after the soup dumplings arrived, honestly. We were just slurping happily.