Wong in the West Village: Asian Fusion That's (Usually) Done Right
7 Cornelia Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n West 4th and Bleecker; map); 212-989-3399wongnewyork.com
Service: Excellent. General Manager Matthew Nathanson is warm and professional, even the cooks at the open kitchen are happy to smile and explain the food.
Setting: Surprisingly quiet and comfortable for a place with communal tables and very tight quarters.
Must-Haves: Hakka Pork Belly, Steak Tataki, Shrimp Fritters, Duck a la Plum Ice Cream
Cost: Appetizers $9 - $12, Mains $15 - $23
Billing itself as "New York's first Asian restaurant to emphasize local and seasonal fare" (a bold statement, to say the least), Wong brings together the talents of Temple Wong, the well-traveled chef and owner of Café Asean, and New York newcomer Matthew Nathanson, whose experiences are mostly in California with a stint at Philly-based wine bar chain Vino Volo.
Pan-Asian cuisine can be a gamble at best. The flavors of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia—all of which make an apperance on Wong's menu, sometimes in a single dish—are so diverse that more often than not, endeavors like this end in confusion rather than triumph. For the most part, Wong avoids the typical pratfalls of overzealous menus, serving food that's incredibly fresh, refined, carefully thought-out for the most part, and reasonably priced even when it's not. A couple of meals here revealed a strong menu with a few low points, mostly in the second act.
The dining room continues the somewhat disturbing trend of communal tables. You can expect to bump elbows with strangers if the restaurant is full, and don't plan on having any meaningful personal conversations unless you enjoy airing your dirty laundry over your neighbors' rice noodles. That said, the space is surprisingly quiet and pleasant when not full, considering its openness and hard surfaces.
The best seats in the house position-wise are the ones ringside, by the kitchen, where you can watch all the action. They're also the worst seats in the house ergonomically speaking—repurposed high school chemistry class bench seats with hard wooden seats and backrests that force you to sit up straight and pay attention.
Wong certainly knows the value of good first impressions, and meals start off strong with a cup of mildly hot red curry, homemade paneer, and a sprig of fresh herbs—sometimes mint, sometimes cilantro—to wrap up inside a disk of naan that's rolled and baked to order. Of the times I've had it, once it was near perfect—moist, fluffy, and supple with a hint of char—while the second time it was a rush job, with less browning and a slightly doughy center that was rescued by the awesome curry sauce.
Things continue on a strong foot with a whole series of excellent appetizers. Both a Bonito Crudo ($13) and a Steak Tataki ($15) boast bright pink, supple flesh under a blanket of textures. The former mixes mitsuba—the Japanese soup herb*— with peanuts, crunchy disks of radish, and a hot chili sauce; while the latter skews slightly more Southeast Asian with sweet and sour pickled onions, aromatic rau rom (a cilantro-like herb), and slices of chili (which I could have used more of). The menu mentions Pho and bone marrow, but it wasn't evident on the plate.
Diving further into Southeast Asian fusion, Shrimp Fritters ($12) have the texture of perfect Indian-style baaji, full of nooks and crannies for absorbing the nuoc cham-style sweet fish sauce that gets poured over. Does it have the bright, vibrant flavors of true Vietnamese food? Not really, but it's delicious enough on its own merits that I really didn't care. The ultra-thin fried shallots might be the best thing on the generous plate. It's meant for sharing (try offering some to the couple sitting next to you at the tightly quartered communal table).
Other fried foods are not quite as succesful. While the scallops and crunchy jellyfish in a plate of Scallops with Crispy Duck Tongue ($16) come together beautifully on the plate, a ball of fried duck tongue seems extraneous. If I wasn't told they contained duck tongue, I would have confused it for dry falafel.
The Fried Oysters with Kimchi Broth and Kimchi Ravioli ($12) suffer from too much breading and too much time in he fryer, rendering the oysters juice- and flavor-less. Kimchi ravioli, on the other hand, is a brilliant idea, and the little pasta purses underneath the clams are filled with spicy, garlicky kimchi. The pasta tends a bit on the thick side, but in a town full of near-perfect pasta, even the most minor errors like this show more than they should.
Hakka Pork Belly with Gakurei Turnip, Taro Root Tater Tots, and Greens ($12) is the nearly flawless in execution. A sweet soy-based glaze coats a meltingly tender hunk of pork belly. Taro root tater tots are a study in textural contrast with a crisp, grease-free shell and a starchy, chewy interior. This Hakka cuisine classic has a tendency to be heavy, but a perfect little nasturtium salad offsets the fattiness of the pork belly nicely.
After the excellent appetizer section, the larger plates come off a bit disappointing. BBQ Chicken with Chrysanthemum Greens and Frisee Salad ($19)
is a reasonably priced and large-portioned entree with really well-cooked chicken, but If I were to order it again, I'd ask them to go a little easy on the powerful chunky sauce that its topped with. It dominates the dish.
Similarly, your palate is overwhelmed with black pepper in the Rice Noodles with Pork & Sea Cucumber Ragu ($18). It's an interesting take on a bolognese sauce, to be sure, with nicely chewy and resilient rice noodles. If you've ever been afraid to try sea cucumber, this is the dish to break yourself in with, as the gelatinous chunks are disguised in the saucy ragu. Our batch was so peppery that we ended up only finishing a few bites of it, despite wanting more.
Surely the most interesting looking item on the menu is the Vietnamese Pizza with Isan Sausage, Fennel, and Stinging Nettles ($15), but it was one of the bigger headscratchers of the night. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with it—a crisp shell cooked in a skillet topped with perfectly cooked shrimp and nuggets of flavorful (but dry) Isan-style sausage—but the dish lacked focus and synergy. I couldn't make heads or tails of how everything was supposed to come together.
The Lobster Egg Foo Young with Leeks, Salted Duck Egg Yolk, and Dried Shrimp Crumble ($24) suffered from the same lack of focus. The really expertly cooked lobster makes this dish almost worth it, but what do fried eggs, lobster, crumbled salted duck egg, dried shrimp, and some sort of tomato-ey chunky leek sauce have to do with Egg Foo Young, or even with each other? I didn't get it.
Luckily, dessert is one of the most stunningly original and creative dishes I've had in recent memory. Duck a la Plum ($9) is sweet and savory with an unmistakable roast duck aroma that comes from steeping duck carcasses in cream. Star anise-poached plums and a plum soda shooter complete the dish, and it's a real keeper. Who knew sweet duck ice cream could be so delicious?
Wong has several dishes on the menu that are worth returning for—the hakka pork belly, the kimchi dumplings (because I'm convinced that if they get the frying right, this'll be one of the best dishes around), the roast duck ice cream—and many others that I wouldn't be disappointed ordering. True to its ethos, everything I tasted was impeccably fresh and prepared with precision and care. Like all fusion concepts, a few dishes didn't quite come together in the way that I hoped they would have, but it's to be expected. With so many languages vying for space, something is bound to get lost in translation.