Well, I guess it was bound to happen some time—it was Tuesday yesterday and no post! Hectic day already with then a hold up on Camille’s end with her photos and by the time that was sorted I was on the road, getting in late last night only to find that we had no internet service at the house. As committed as I am to this weekly ritual of the Tuesday post I decided not to head out at 11:00 to find that open coffee house somewhere out there in the dark. So here we are a day late but I’d like to think most definitely not a dollar short. Camille’s post are worth reading whenever they come in—and this one is no exception…
Danny Bowien is Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised, and cooks Sichuan Chinese food. And his restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, is just as eclectic as he is. After establishing its first location in San Francisco, Bowien opened a NYC outpost in 2012. But after a successful year and a half of business, the restaurant was forced to close due to complications with the building. Undeterred, he came back at the end of last year with the new and improved Mission Chinese Food NYC, bringing with him a matured style and unmistakable personality.
When searching for a description for Danny Bowien's style of cooking, I can't help but quote Pete Wells in his review of the original Mission Chinese because it (and he) is so genius:
Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it. He grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc.
The food is loosely based on Sichuan cuisine, but takes a hodgepodge approach, incorporating elements from other cultures as they fall into place inside his head, not always making sense to the rest of us at first. You could call it Asian-fusion, but I would encourage you not to. That term in cooking has come to often connote a carelessness with and lack of respect for ingredients and culture in following a trend. Bowien's food is much more deliberate than that.
As soon as I stepped into the main dining room of the new Mission Chinese Food I was electrified by the nightclub-like sexiness of the place, which immediately instilled in me a lust for food, drink, and fun. A vibrant pink light splashes color across what looks like a giant crinkled sheet of aluminum foil stretching the length of the far wall, setting a wild backdrop for the otherwise dimly lit room. Other light issues from retrofuturistic light-fixtures and reflections in the mirrors that hang on the wall above every deep maroon banquette lining the room. With the exception of the foil wall, all of these other outfittings were inherited from Rosette, the restaurant previously housed in the space. Yet with Bowien's eccentric touches and hip hop blasting from the speakers it exudes a very unique vibe.
Details in the room remind you that, yes, indeed, you are in a Chinese restaurant, but not as blatantly as the giant illuminated red dragon suspended above the heads of diners at Mission Chinese Food's previous Orchard Street locationn. At the new digs a smattering of not-strictly-Chinese trinkets sit between booths: a waving fortune cat here, a glass-blown koi fish there. I've heard the room described more than once as being like a “Chinese banquet hall” mainly due to a large communal round table towards the back outfitted with a lazy susan.
I know that this place sounds cheesy, but trust me, it works in a much classier and more versatile way than you might think. As expected, much of the crowd is as young and hip as the atmosphere, but there is an element of maturity to the food and environment that appeals to all ages. I was even surprised at the show of diversity in the dining crowd. Even more family-friendly is the brighter, more casual front room with high-top tables, its own bar, and a view of the wood-fired oven (another fixture that Bowien hung on to after Rosette's departure).
When Mission Chinese Food expanded to a larger space, so did the menu. It's quite vast, about twice the size of its predecessor, and includes old favorites and new dishes that are surely soon-to-become old favorites. Everything is served family style and comes “as ready,” which is fast since much of the menu comes out of the wok. Many of classics from the more raucous and grungy days play more like hefty flavor-bombs in shades of deep reds, blackish-browns, and beige. The Thrice-Cooked Bacon tossed with sliced rice cakes is addictive. Silky Mapo Tofu and heritage pork swim in a pool so dark with glistening aged beef fat and chili oil that it looks like it came from the depths of Hell. One of the dishes heaviest on Sichuan peppercorn, its tingly numbing effect only encourages you to tolerate more of the spice. Kung Pao Pastrami, Chongquin Chicken Wings, Sichuan Pickled Vegetables, and Westlake Rice Porridge are among the other resurrected stand-byes.
But Bowien really shows his growth as a chef in the new additions to the menu, which have an obvious finesse and refinement to them. Many of them are quite beautiful, plates that wouldn't be out of place in a fine dining restaurant. One of the most visually stunning were dumplings filled with scrambled egg and tapioca pearls, connected by a web of lacy batter that shatters as you separate them. Complimentary to every table, they make everyone feel like special guests. You do have to pay for bread service, which most people expect to come free with their meal at restaurants and so might refrain from ordering it, but if you do you'll be missing out on one of the biggest gems of the menu. A fluffy, roti-like flatbread (the recipe was crafted for Bowien by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco) comes warm from the wood-fired oven alongside a bowl of soft, supple kafir butter over which a server pours buttermilk (from the same processing) table-side. Never have I eaten butter and buttermilk together, and let me tell you, the sweet and slightly tangy resulting combination was revolutionary.
The same flatbread comes with Our Favorite Anchovies, served in the tin and topped with pickled chili peppers and fennel seed, and I have declared that they are now my favorite anchovies. Chewy Green Tea Noodles are tossed in a ginger-scallion sauce and delicately dusted with matcha. Stir-Fried Celery with sprouted hazelnut and fresh lily bulb is a light and refreshing haven from the spice on the table.
The fried rice will also surprise you with its lightness and subtlety, so much so that I had a friend tell me that she sent it back to the kitchen when she dined on a previous occasion because she thought it wasn't fried. It's not your typical hammered and sauce-covered novelty of Chinese-American cuisine. Try the classic Salt Cod Fried Rice; it is complimented by just the right amount of egg and Chinese sausage as to not overpower the delicately flakey fish and fluffy rice.
If you come with a group, which is really the way to do it, you can order an abundance of dishes with the hope of actually making a dent in them, seeing as the portions are very large. It also gives you the opportunity to try the large-format menu items like the Smoked Prime Rib with King Crab Legs or Josefina's House Special Chicken, filled with a Filipino-style chorizo stuffing inspired by the heritage flavors of Bowien's Chef de Cuisine Angela Dimayuga. If you can, try to arrive within the first hour of opening; with a no-reservation system, the wait can quickly climb to two hours in the blink of an eye.
Trying to do justice to the entire menu at Mission Chinese Food would take many more pages. But the point to be made is that there is something for everyone here. In no way is it a compromising crowd-pleaser of a restaurant. It just so happens that Danny Bowien has come to a beautiful balance at his new restaurant: of maturity and playfulness, of groundbreaking and comforting, of a night-out-on-the-town and a meal with the family. And somehow it still maintains a personality that is one of a kind in NYC and elsewhere.
Mission Chinese Food
171 E Broadway
Tues – Sat: 5:30pm-midnight
Menu Items: $7 - $35
Family Platters: $60 - $70
Small Tasting Menu: $69/ea
Large Tasting Menu: $99/ea