They say the devil's in the details, but at Silk Rd Tavern, a restaurant in the Flatiron district specializing in Asian and American comfort foods, the devil's in the abbreviation. It's "Rd," not "Road," and the lack of the two letters lets the Asian-American comfort food get away with a lot. Things get swapped, substituted, mashed up, the familiar gets reimagined and rendered un-.
Seated in the brick-and-brown dining room, an enchanting space with Edison lights that mimic candles and make everyone look lovable, we were served an amuse bouche of Japanese cucumbers, sliced red chilies, shishito peppers, and sesame seeds. The nuttiness made the dish, which itself underscored the Silk Rd Tavern's ambitions (as did its prices). Divided into appetizers and mains, everything is nevertheless meant to be shared and comes out whenever it's ready.
Next out were the curry egg noodles ($14), a bowl of disparate, unmixed stuff. We're not opposed to working for our supper, so to speak, but this preparation (or lack thereof) struck us as lazy. So we tossed together the gummy noodles, gai-lan (Chinese broccoli), sugar snap peas, and XO sauce (dried shrimp, dried scallops, garlic, and chiles, among other ingredients), the whole shebang sprinkled with curry powder. There might have been some peanut sauce somewhere too. Yet this noodle dish for all seasons wound up being fit for none.
We fared better with the second arrival, the everything duck roll ($12) with apricot mustard. These compact bundles replaced cabbage and pork with just about every part of the duck, including shredded leg meat and crispy skin, as well as Chinese five-spice powder, Hudson Valley foie gras, and a splash of cognac. Each bite was jam-packed with gamey, umami flavors.
But it was the tavern mac & cheese ($13) that truly epitomized the restaurant's comfort food aesthetic. Here the chef had swapped out the macaroni for Korean rice cakes. The carby ovals simply loved the Vermont cheddar and New York sharp, grasping the cheese and refusing to let go, counteracting the cheese's bite with pure starch. The portion, served in a wicked hot mini-skillet, was big enough to split. Make sure to evenly divide the panko topping, which counterbalances the other components through lots of crunch.
Marinated in soy sauce for what tasted like days, the chicken breast in the Hainese chicken ($19) had been broiled and plopped atop grits made with chicken fat and cucumber sambal. Here, the union of geography and materials worked: the juicy chicken got to talking with the loose, unctuous porridge, gossiping about keeping moist, while the soy sauce hung out with the vinegar, a combo that could be too salty but wasn't. And everyone's chatter was punctuated by the cukes' crispness.
Silk Rd Tavern's owner, Andrew Lee, runs several places in Flushing, and envisions this one as embodying his travels through Asia. Philippines-born, CIA-trained Executive Chef Leo Forneas has the background and kitchen cred to make these imaginings real, and sometimes does, as with the mac & cheese. When we imagine, we elide and gloss over, forgetting details and jumbling together formerly separate scenes or sensations. So it is here. When the dishes work, as with the chicken and grits or mac & cheese, they work, and the memories of the chef reverberate in the soul of the eater. Silk Rd Tavern is best for: a date in your comfort zone.