Regional Chinese cuisine in New York has come a long way in the past few decades: real-deal Cantonese cooking can be found as easily as chop suey, and eating Sichuan-style has never been better. And now there's a new branch on the family tree of New York Chinese food: the small but well publicized opening of Yunnan Kitchen, which like the recently opened Lotus Blue, heralds the arrival of a cuisine (to Manhattan, anyway) that's hopefully here to stay.
If Sichuan cuisine is about fire and spice, the Yunnan cooking represented by owner Erika Chou and chef Travis Post (previously of Franny's and Brooklyn Larder) is about herbs, edible flowers, and light, bright flavors. Yunnan sits in the very southwest of China, adjacent to Vietnam and Laos along the old spice routes, and culinary influences flood in from every direction. Southeast Asian herbs and plants, Middle Eastern spices, and traditional Chinese techniques—to say nothing of a wealth of homegrown produce—combine to make a style of Chinese cooking unlike anything else.
The menu is composed of small plates designed for sharing so you can eat family style, even in small groups. It's divided into four sections: cold dishes like chrysanthemum leaf salad ($7) and braised beef rolls ($10), hot ones like scrambled egg with jasmine flowers ($7) and Yunnan-spiced fried potato balls ($8), skewered street food snacks, and rice and noodle dishes.
Chou fell in love with Yunnan and its food after traveling through the region (artifacts from her trips adorn the walls). She set out with Post, whose passion "has always been the misrepresented nature of Chinese food in the U.S.," to build a menu of simple ingredients with hidden complexity. Fresh produce—bought across the greenmarkets and in Chinatown—is the focus of many dishes; others are built on a platform of Pat LaFrieda meat. When herbs, spices, and sauces are deployed, they mostly come as accents.
Though Yunnan Kitchen looks like the kind of restaurant that would dress up traditional cooking with high-concept cheffery, Chou insists that the food is mostly down to earth homey dishes made with an eye toward "letting the ingredients speak for themselves."
Beer and wine will come soon, but right now beverage service comes in the form of a by-the-pot tea selection, with an emphasis on black and pu'ehr leaves, several of which hail from Yunnan. Yunnan Kitchen is currently open for dinner from 5 to 11 every day except Tuesday. Check out the slideshow for a look at some of the dishes currently on the menu.