Chinese On the Menu
Daring and traditional
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH
Creative reinvention continues to be a theme of 2015, and Chinese is the muse for a pair of new places downtown. On a gritty but revitalizing stretch of St. Claude Avenue is Red’s Chinese, where Tobias Womack and Amy Mosberger opened their doors following the success of their Bywater pop-up. Womack brings with him an assertive style heavily (but not uniquely) inspired by time spent with Danny Bowien, the Korean-born but Oklahoma-raised chef of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. Bowien and his Americanized cultural mashup menu became an unlikely sensation in San Francisco and later New York City, and Womack carries that disruptive ethos into his kitchen on St. Claude. Lost in the noise, however, is a more subtle influence courtesy of time spent with Judy Rogers at Zuni Café (his use of preserved lemons, for example).
Womack’s kung pao pastrami comes, admittedly, courtesy of Mission Chinese. Cubes of pastrami get stir-fried with bell pepper, onion and celery, with rice cakes contributing starch. Rounding out the aggressive spice blend is the distinctive tingle of Szechuan peppercorn, more a physical sensation than a seasoning.
The food here comes in large portions with larger flavors. His Royal Ribs feature spareribs braised until tender then deep-fried to order, glazed with Wuxi-style barbecue sauce and finished with chopped green onion, homemade jalapeño-spiked crinkle pickles and “peasant loaf” – aka Bunny Bread to you and me. (“I get that from Kim’s Market just down the street,” Womack says. “Wherever I go, I try to put something on the menu from a nearby convenience store.”)
So Thomas Keller this is not. Bourbon and Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey (courtesy of our local Sazerac Company) help jump-start the Wuxi barbecue sauce. The acidity comes from rice vinegar rather than cider. The stock used to braise the ribs gets tuned with aromatics including star anise, cinnamon bark, ginger, garlic and Shaoxing wine, and is also used for the Swallow Cloud Soup. Put another way, any one of these dishes may overload your taste receptors. There is a street food sensibility to Red’s Chinese as well. This is one of the few places you might find chicken feet on the menu.
While the criticism that New Orleans lacks authentic Chinese food is largely warranted, there are a few exceptions.
One is Jung’s Golden Dragon on Magazine Street, which offers its Not-So-Secret Chinese menu alongside the Americanized one that includes choices like surprisingly addictive garlic cucumbers and soup dumplings. Another choice is Little Chinatown in Kenner, which offers authentic (and excellent) roasted pork and duck.
But do dishes like that sell? “Not really,” Womack admits. “But there are other ways I can work it in. I can use it to add flavor to the broth then pull it, fry it and sauce it and just send it out as a comp. Say, ‘Well here is a plate of chicken feet – enjoy!’ It definitely changes the mood with people out on date night – it just creates its own conversation, so to speak.”
So when it comes to the table is it still recognizably a chicken foot?
“Oh yeah, I just chop the claws off. But it is most certainly a chicken foot,” Womack says.
Other recommended dishes are the General Lee’s Chicken, made with a bourbon-spiked soy sauce, and the Oriental Sliders, featuring pastrami and a homemade kimchee.
Not far from Red’s Chinese is Bao and Noodle, a casual nook in the heart of Marigny. The low-key vibe here is a result of chef and owner Doug Crowell’s desire to open a restaurant that complements the neighborhood.
Crowell comes from a fine-dining background, following a seven-year stint at Herbsaint. The idea coalesced during time he took off to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife, who is of Chinese descent, encouraged him, and certainly both were attracted to the idea of offering a more representative Chinese restaurant to the local dining scene. His menu draws primarily on Cantonese influences with a helping of Szechuan Province, though the menu is ingredient-driven rather than locked into strictly conventional executions. “I call it ‘traditional Chinese’ but I’m not saying ‘authentic’ because, well, I’m not in China, so a lot of the ingredients you just can’t buy here,” Crowell explains. “Certainly some of these dishes are translations of dishes that exist over there. And also I like using local produce. I have a farmer who brings me nice stuff, so I’m going to use that before I go to the Asian market to buy some specific cabbage.”
And, as indicated by the restaurant’s name, both steamed buns and noodles play a central role. All Crowell’s noodles are made in house, as are the dumpling wrappers and skins for his wonton. “I really like noodles – they are perfect comfort food.” Rice, egg and wheat versions are all represented. “I also do a fried steamed bao, which is a street food in Mainland China.”
Crowell also sometimes runs soup dumplings, a labor-intensive variation not often seen on menus in New Orleans. For his pork version he uses an air-cured Virginia country ham that approximates the flavor of a type used in Mainland China to round out a flavorful broth set with agar-agar. The gelled stock is then mixed with seasoned ground pork. The filling goes into homemade dough wrappers that are shaped then steamed so that the gelled stock re-liquefies inside the dumpling. The technique is almost modernist before modernist was even a thing.
Another dish to try includes his whole steamed fish, stuffed with ginger, flowering chive, garlic and green onion. Steamed with a little bit of soy, the fish releases its own liquor and then gets hot oil poured over it à la minute. “The aromatics are amazing – when it comes to the table it is really fragrant,” he says.
3048 St. Claude Ave.
Bao and Noodle
2700 Charters St.
Lunch and dinner daily
Jung’s Golden Dragon
3009 Magazine St.
3800 Williams Blvd., Kenner