RedFarm Comes Home to the Upper West Side
2170 Broadway (between 76 and 77th; map); redfarmnyc.com/upper-west-side/
Setting: Not-too-fancy Upper West Side bistro
Service: Well-informed (and not afraid to show it)
Compare To: RedFarm in the West Village, Shun Lee
Must-Haves: Any of the dim sum, shrimp-stuffed chicken, hot and sour soup.
Recommendation: Recommended. If Chinese-American food is your jam, you will experience the best right here.
In a way, RedFarm, the high-end Chinese-American dim sum and stir-fry house that opened its first branch in the West Village a couple years ago, always belonged on the Upper West Side. It's not too far from Shun Lee Palace, the grandaddy of high-end Chinese-American restaurants where Ed Schoenfeld, the man behind RedFarm, cut his chops as the only Brooklyn-born, Jewish Maitre d' in an all-Chinese crew. It's close to Morningside Heights, where, Schoenfeld will tell you, Chinese restaurants first made their inroads into the New York dining scene. And it's where, for better or for worse, their target clientele largely reside: the kind that have enough money to drop $100 on a meal for two, enough kids to want a dinner away form the cacophony and late night menus of downtown, and enough balls and experience to revel in unashamedly, unabashedly gussied-up Chinese food.
The critics of RedFarm are the same folks who have criticized the likes of the Shun Lee Palace and West, Buddakan, and Chinatown Brasserie. The latter is where Ed Schoenfeld and chef Joe Ng first perfected the formula of fancy ingredient, refined technique, Western-friendly service and saucing, with a dash of over-the-top-and-almost-tacky presentation that have made their restaurants so popular among one set, and worthy of eye-rolls from another. You can count a younger version of me among those critics.
And really, it's an easy cuisine to roll your eyes at: why would I pay $3 per dumpling served to me by a white guy with an American accent when I can get five dumplings by handing over a single dollar to an honest-to-goodness Chinese person in Chinatown? I mean, doesn't the grittiness and low cost of Chinatown make it a more authentic and therefore better experience? Where are the fiery flavors and wacky animal parts? Where's the rock and roll of Sichuan peppercorns or fermented sauces?
RedFarm has none of these things, yet to fault it on those issues is to miss the point of what Schoenfeld and Ng have done here. A meal at RedFarm is every bit as authentic; The cuisine it specializes in—Upper West Side Haute Chinese-American—was practically invented by the proprietors and chef.
As Schoenfeld will tell you—and, full disclosure: he recognized me when I sat down and spent a good deal of time talking about the history of New York Chinese food—the high-end Chinese cuisine we have in New York (and its subsequent influence on the menus of cheaper Chinese restaurants) had its start in the kitchens of the Chinese military and political aristocracy under Chiang Kai-Shek and made its way to New York after the General's fall in 1949.
"In the '60s, we had a generation of elite Chinese cooks who were cooking in China when they were in their 20s and 30s, but have since moved to New York and are now in their 50s and 60s. That's where the food at the first refined Chinese restaurants came from. This wasn't street food or the food your Chinese grandmother makes—which can be great—but something more subtle and technique-focused." What Ng does at RedFarm now is to combine the descendants of those techniques with the best ingredients money can buy, and it works.
It was obvious at the first RedFarm, where dishes like beef and broccoli were reinvented as short ribs, marinated overnight in a tenderizing papaya and soy concoction, grilled until just barely charred (Ng's cooks are masters of the grill), and finally stir-fried with charred cauliflower, broccoli, and long green peppers. It's the best beef and broccoli I've ever had. It's made its way uptown in the form of the dry-aged Prime Rib Steak with Asparagus ($41) that treats a 21-day dry-aged prime steak to the same pampering. $41 for a main course at a Chinese restaurant? Remember: that's the same LaFrieda-aged Prime Creekstone Farms beef that the best Western restaurants in the city are serving for at least twice the price.
Likewise, their Hot & Sour Soup—$14 for a more-than-two-sized portion—is the most uniquely delicious version of the dish I've had, its lightly thickened stock flavored with roasted shrimp shells, fried leeks, and black trumpet mushrooms. It's surprisingly hot, with a chili heat that doesn't find its way onto much else in the menu. The grilled shrimp, perfectly plump and briny, are what you wish all grilled shrimp taste like.
More examples of virtuosic cross-cultural technique: Shrimp-Stuffed Chicken ($27), which may sound pedestrian on the menu, until you taste a bit of what it involves. Ng starts out by deboning a whole bird, as if to roll it into a French galantine, then hangs it to cure and dry. Next, a rough paste of chopped shrimp is applied to the fleshy side (and I still don't know how they get that damn shrimp paste so freaking moist and bouncy), then given a final coating of dehydrated rice before being roasted (or is it deep fried?) until the rice explodes into a cracklingly crisp crust and the chicken skin ends up with the lacquered crunch of a Peking duck.
I'm a pretty well-versed cook and have been known to go through some herculean efforts now and then in the name of good texture and flavor, but this is the kind of head-scratching, "how the heck did they do that?"-type stuff that I love being surprised by. The two dipping sauces are almost superfluous (and the hot and sour one entirely so).
There is, of course, some bad news. Dishes that seem to really revel in the fast-turnaround, intense-char environments of a Chinatown restaurant can come off as overly refined here. The Barbecued Roast Duck ($27) is unsurprisingly perfectly cooked—tender, meaty, and crisp-skinned—but the pile of chow fun noodles and shredded vegetables it comes on are missing the smoky spark of wok hei or fermented funk of black soy beans that the best versions of the dish in the city capture. Wokked dishes at the first RedFarm were similarly mild-mannered.
The Grilled Pork Chops ($25) swerve into Southeast Asian territory with their sweet-and-salty lemongrass marinade (think: the $6.96 lunch special at the Vietnamese restaurants downtown). Like all of the meats here, they're impeccably cooked, though some simple white rice would have done a better job of soaking up their tasty juices than the odd choice of sautéed sweet corn that comes hidden underneath them.
If dumplings and dim-sum were your reason for going to the original RedFarm (and that's a mighty fine reason), you'll be happy with the menu uptown, which has a dozen standard items and several specials each night. Get the Shrimp & Mango Fried Wontons ($12) and do some more head scratching as you marvel at how well shrimp and mango go together, or splurge and order the Chicken and Black Truffle Soup Dumplings ($20) to see what a soup dumpling is like in its highest form. The wide, thin-skinned purses house a broth every bit as flavorful and lip-smackingly rich and sticky as the consommé course in that perfect French haute cuisine meal that only exists in your mind.
Treats like the translucent-skinned har gow with their crunchy shrimp and snow pea leaf filling make you want to take back the eye roll you inadvertently gave the waiter when he told you, "Chef is the best dumpling chef in New York" in his opening spiel. These really are har gow cut from a different cloth (or should I say wrapper?).
The last "how the heck do they do that?" trick comes when you realize as I did that due to the volume of dumplings and wontons being served between the two locations (Schoenfeld estimated it at between 20 to 25 thousand per week and placed his staff numbers at 180 employees for a total of about half as many seats), there's got to be a small army of prep cooks working to form them all, most likely the same cooks who pile into Buddakan or any number of other high-end dim sum restaurants a few days a week to exchange their dough-folding prowess for a paycheck. So how is it that Schoenfeld and Ng's dumplings are just better? Is it in the higher quality ingredients? Perhaps in the exact recipes for the fillings? Is it in some ineffable philosophical ethos they establish in their kitchen crews?
Whatever it is, the special sauce is working, even if it does taste a bit like General Tso's.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.