New Yunnan restaurants

Lotus Blue and Yunnan Kitchen introduce New Yorkers to the delicate flavors of southwestern China.

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Rating: 3/5 Yunnan Kitchen: 79 Clinton St between Delancey and Rivington Sts (212-253-2527). Subway: F to Delancey St; J, Z, M to Delancey–Essex Sts. Mon, Wed–Sun 5–11pm. Average small plate: $9.


Rating: 3/5 Lotus Blue: 110 Reade St between Church St and West Broadway (212-267-3777). Subway: 1, 2, 3 to Chambers St. Mon noon–3pm, 5–10:30pm; Tue–Thu noon–3pm, 5pm–12:30am; Fri noon–3pm, 5pm–1:30am; Sat 5pm–1:30am; Sun 5–10:30pm. Average main course: $28.


  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Fried potato balls at Yunnan Kitchen

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Charred eggplant at Yunnan Kitchen

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Lamb meatballs at Yunnan Kitchen

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Crispy whole shrimp at Yunnan Kitchen

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Yunnan Kitchen

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Yunnan Kitchen

Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Fried potato balls at Yunnan Kitchen

The quaint era when Americanized Indian and Thai food passed for exotic gave way long ago to more authentic regionalization. Oaxacan, Isaan Thai and South Indian spots are the new norm in New York, featuring flavors that tend to rock our perceptions of their countries’ cuisines. Chinese food, too, has made a specialized shift to tongue-numbing Szechuan, lamb-centric Xian and snacky Shanghai cuisine.


The rain-forest cooking of the southern province of Yunnan is the latest addition to New York’s polyglot Chinese-food landscape. Until recently, the only place offering a taste was a takeout cubbyhole—Yun Nan Flavor Snack—out in Sunset Park’s Chinatown. But Yunnan cooking has suddenly arrived in a big way, with two up-market venues, Lotus Blue in Tribeca and Yunnan Kitchen on the Lower East Side, opening within weeks of each other. Both serve food so distinctive—fruity, floral, occasionally spicy—that the uninitiated might not identify it as Chinese at all. With essentially no competition (that Brooklyn joint serves only noodle soups), you might have to take it on faith that this is what real Yunnan food tastes like.


Yunnan Kitchen is the brainchild of former Standard Grill manager Erika Chou, a Chinese-American who’s spent some time in the region. Before opening the place, she returned with her chef Travis Post, who spent the past five years cooking locavore pizza at Franny’s. He’s developed chefly renditions of the tastes he encountered on that trip, more impressionistic than truly authentic—which works out just fine, given his pitch-perfect palate and skills with a wok.


Post and his team, working in an open kitchen, create a real racket stir-frying dinner, as if proving themselves by the amount of noise they can make. The percussive performance echoes through the votive-lit dining room, a beautiful, lofty space appointed with antiques from the region and a bit farther afield (framed Yunnan jewels, a Tibetan tiger-print rug).


In Yunnan the food is as bright and lively as it is in neighboring Vietnam, featuring plenty of wild herbs and greens and fresh potent chilies. Raw chrysanthemum leaves, peppery like arugula, are drizzled with cool sesame dressing in a light, palate-stirring salad. Charred baby eggplants are just as zingy, soaked in black vinegar and topped with crushed peanuts and slivered red chilies. Crispy whole shrimp have a great citrus tang, thanks to a dusting of lime salt and a sprinkle of lime leaves deep-fried like chips.


Post highlights bold flavors—his super-succulent lamb meatballs are seasoned with an Indian-style spice blend (cumin, coriander and cardamom). But there are subtle tastes, too. Mashed-potato puffs, as delicate as French pommes dauphines, come with a light soy-vinegar dipping sauce. Silky scrambled eggs are folded around jasmine buds and cherry tomatoes.


Despite the clamorous soundtrack of metal on wok, all of this food is as spare and elegant as the space it’s served in.


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