With the opening of Yunnan Kitchen, our neighborhood now boasts one of only two Yunnan restaurants in Manhattan. Until recently, the only Yunnan place in the city was is a tiny noodle shop in Brooklyn, where Cynthia and I have eaten.
We were struck by the similarities to Vietnamese food: the use of fresh herbs, crunchy veggies, chopped peanuts as a garnish and just a little bit of sugar added to play against the hot pepper. This is not surprising, as Yunnan Provence shares a border with Vietnam. They also use vinegar to balance out spicy, sweet and salty flavors. The result is food that’s often simple and fresh tasting, yet nuanced.
I had some trepidation about Yunnan Kitchen — a “small plates” joint on Clinton Street. Like many New Yorkers, I consider the ability to get delicious Chinese food for cheap practically a God-given right. If I must sacrifice some of the bourgeois niceties in my dining out experience to that end, so be it. I’d rather eat good food in a dive than pay top dollar for okay food in a place with great service and décor.
Yunnan Kitchen is anything but a dive. It has nice lighting. They play good music. The staff would be best described as friendly, smiling good-looking people. Most of the menu items are in the $7-$10 range, but this is “small plates,” so figure on dropping $20-$35 per person. That’s before drinks, and they don’t even have alcohol yet. (The barman said the license is expected in about a week).
I decided to take advantage of their new take out option. Ten minutes later I was $45 poorer, walking home with the most expensive Chinese takeout I’ve ever bought.
The portions are small, so Yunnan Kitchen fails to be a value. I would go so far as to call it “spendy.” When a place is spendy I expect the food to be excellent. I’ll give Yunnan Kitchen that. There were several “oh, wow” moments during our meal. The tofu salad with cilantro and red onion was crave-worthy. That’s right – crave-worthy tofu in the form of super thin ribbons that looked like noodles. The shredded chicken salad was even better. The chicken is seasoned with cumin and hot pepper, then served on a creamy bed of coconut flavored mashed taro with scallions and some crispy thin fried noodles. A slice of lotus root added more crunch to dish. Braised beef rolls were super light, a thin slice of tender meat wrapped around cucumber and herbs. They come a mere five to an order, which is a shame. I could easily have eaten ten by myself. Fried rice with Chinese sausage was probably the weakest dish of the bunch, but I’d ordered it only to add some ballast to the meal. It admirably performed this role with a decent quantity of sausage and mushrooms. The earthiness of this dish was a fun contrast to the bright flavors of the others.
Four dishes made a light meal for two. It’s perfect warm weather food – light, a little spicy and very fresh. Cheap it ain’t, but Yunnan Kitchen is one of the only games in town. And they’re doing it very well, which makes this place a worthy splurge.
Yunnan Kitchen is located at 79 Clinton Street. It’s open from 5-11 p.m. every day but Tuesday. Phone: 212-253-2527.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
Walking home with my take out from Yunnan Kitchen I decided I wanted a glass of wine with the meal. Beer is usually the safe choice against Asian food that has a little spice, but I knew a wine that would work at Seward Park Liquors. I’ve recommended it before: Marques de Riscal, Rueda, 2010. It’s a modern style white, light enough to play nice with bright fresh herbs, but with enough acid not to get overwhelmed by bolder flavors. A hint of residual sugar allows it to accompany food that’s a little spicy as well. While a sparkler may have been an even better pairing, the Rueda was very good (and affordable at $10 a bottle). I find myself reaching for this wine often.