Good Thing, Small Package – IF by chance you are a lover of dumplings (and really, Anthony Bourdain might have to mount a search party to find someone who isn’t), then consider this a very good time to be a New Yorker.
Yes, food trends beg to be quibbled over. We grow weary of cupcakes, of meatballs, of the overwhelming ubiquity of bacon. And yet it’s hard to find fault with the recent ascendancy of Asian dumplings on a lot of city menus, in part because it’s hard to snicker at the simple, plump lovability of this globe-spanning culinary trope: the very form of a dumpling, with a hidden knob of flavor all wrapped up in a bow of dough, calls to mind a tiny present that our species has decided to pass along to itself.
New York has been a dumpling town for a long time. Up and down the streets of Flushing (and at countless stuffed-pouch shrines like Vanessa’s Dumpling House, Joe’s Shanghai, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Grand Sichuan,Prosperity Dumpling and M Shanghai Bistro & Garden), diners can feast on platters of two-bite delights while sometimes spending less than you’d pay for a morning cup of coffee.
But lately, in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens, at spots like Talde, RedFarm, Hakkasan, Danji, the Good Fork, the Hurricane Club, the Rickshaw food truck, Biang and (at unpredictable intervals) Mission Chinese Food, classic dumpling forms are being executed with meticulous care — and stuffed, pinched and twisted into fresh manifestations.
In Park Slope, Dale Talde has engineered one of the most hunted-down bar snacks of 2012, a beer-friendly, street-cart collision known as the “pretzel dumpling.”
Inside, there’s some slightly cured pork. Outside, a process of boiling, brushing, pan-searing and baking creates a skin with the crust and chew of a hot pretzel. The dipping sauce echoes what you might get at a deli, or in a bag full of Chinese takeout: strong mustard.
For Mr. Talde, who grew up in Chicago and comes from a Filipino background, the goal was to summon a dish that represented a spirited take on what’s Asian and what’s American. “For us, it was a perfect way of blending the two,” he said.
If any place embodies the city’s neo-dumpling ethos, though, it’s RedFarm, whose West Village location has already spawned a forthcoming Upper West Side spinoff. At RedFarm, there are dumplings fashioned to look like Pac-Man characters and horseshoe crabs. There’s also an egg roll stuffed with pastrami.
“I call them whimsical,” said Ed Schoenfeld, the veteran restaurateur behind RedFarm. Spend an afternoon touring the kitchen, and Mr. Schoenfeld will rhapsodize about the artistry of the chef, Joe Ng. Those batter-crusted crabs might look like a cute gag, but there’s culinary precision (and greenmarket produce) inside them.
One day Mr. Schoenfeld pointed to a bowl of stuffing that Xiao Yan Mei, a prep cook, was smearing into sections of dough with a paddle that looked like a tongue depressor. That bowl held tiny cubes of roasted duck and vegetables — cut into what the French would call a brunoise, Mr. Schoenfeld said — all of which were meant to give the dumpling texture, “rather than having meatloaf inside.”
“This has a mouth feel that’s really special,” he said. “Here you can get individual bits of mushroom or sweet carrot or corn,” as opposed to the meat-and-spice mush often found inside a dumpling. “You might be getting yummy duck mush, but you’re not getting this, and there’s an appreciable difference.”
The current New York dumpling spectrum ranges from hyper-traditionalism to outlandish rule-flouting. Lawrence Knapp, the chef at the Hurricane Club, on Park Avenue South, cranks out unorthodox dumplings that riff on chicken parmigiana, pad Thai, cheesesteak and barbecued pork. “We don’t really strictly follow the guidelines of what makes sense or what a typical quote-unquote Asian dumpling is,” he said. “You can cheat more with the dumplings. You can have more fun with them, and people aren’t really going to criticize it.”
Or you can go the opposite route, as is done at Hakkasan in Midtown, where a sort of special-forces squadron of dim sum creates traditional dumplings with a level of precision that might be expected at an imperial Chinese banquet (with prices to match).
For Hooni Kim, the chef at Danji in Hell’s Kitchen, and Sohui Kim, the chef at the Good Fork in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the goal is to take a humble example of Korean street food and unpretentiously elevate it.
“Just wanting to perfect something that is really simple” is how Ms. Kim, from the Good Fork, put it. “What can I do to this already amazing food? How can I one-up this a little bit?”
While Mr. Talde has memories of making dumplings with his mother at Christmas, Jason Wang, the 24-year-old entrepreneur behind Biang! and the Xi’an Famous Foods restaurants, remembers doing the same thing with his family around the onset of the Lunar New Year.
“For Asian families, dumplings are something that we all grew up with,” Mr. Wang said. And the notion of inventively “playing around with the dumpling” is overdue, he added.
“For our generation,” he said, “it’s a way of communicating these things to everyone.”
The dumplings at Biang! (either floating in broth or strafed with generous rivulets of spicy red oil) are stuffed with lamb, as are the juicy ones that can sometimes be found (usually as a special) at a famous Chinese style restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, on the Lower East Side. There, the chef, Danny Bowien, plays up “the funkiness of the lamb, and the lamb fat,” he said, by cramming the restaurant’s dumplings with cheek meat.
Mr. Bowien has a love/hate relationship with dumplings. The problem, he said (echoing a sentiment that you can hear from chefs all over town) is that they’re way too popular. Popular enough to throw the whole kitchen out of whack.
Back in the spring, when the lamb-cheek dumplings were a fixture on the Mission Chinese Food menu, “we would get, like, 16 orders per table,” Mr. Bowien said. “I was like, ‘Really?’ It just got too crazy. After dumpling No. 1,000 goes out the door, I’m like, ‘Uh, let’s make something else.’ ”
At the Good Fork, Ms. Kim didn’t even want to include dumplings on the original menu, even though she had an excellent recipe from her mother. She sees the place as a globe-trotting bistro. But once her pork-and-chive packages made an appearance, with an interior texture expertly softened by lacings of silken tofu, it seemed there was no turning back, especially after she won a dumpling cook-off on “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.”
“After ‘Throwdown’ aired, all week I was like, ‘I hate dumplings,’ ” she said. “People came in just to get the dumplings. People would say, ‘Can I get 20 dozen in a box?’
“But I kept them on the menu. I just couldn’t disappoint people.”
Source: The New York Times