New York chefs have reimagined Korean, reinvented Italian and turned Thai on its head. But Chinese food—the best of it sequestered in the outer boroughs, the worst of it prepared behind bulletproof glass in any number of neighborhood dumps—has mostly been stuck in a traditional rut. In this context, RedFarm is indeed groundbreaking: an interpretive Chinese kitchen whose high-end ingredients and whimsical plating have helped pack the dining room since opening night.
The restaurant is an Ed Schoenfeld joint, building on the work he began with head chef Joe Ng over at Chinatown Brasserie. Schoenfeld, who got his start as a waiter in the 1960s at an haute Chinese spot and later became a restaurant consultant, helped usher in a golden age for Chinese fine dining that has long since subsided. Buzzy RedFarm feels like a return to those boom times, a stab at bringing some of that old energy back.
The dining room is certainly an unconventional backdrop for a Chinese restaurant. Dressed in farm-to-table drag with potted plants in the windows, blond wood pillars and gingham booths, the place could easily pass for another seasonal New American restaurant. And the eclectic menu is just as hard to pin down.
You might begin with a few old-school Chinese-American bites—room-temperature shards of extra-crispy orange beef or wok-fried wings tingly with Szechuan peppercorns. And then there are dumplings to pass around. Ng, who is a partner here, is well-known for his dim sum artistry, turning out beautiful, delicate dumplings in playful and wacky shapes. Pork and shrimp shumai come skewered over shot glasses of warm carrot soup—designed to be eaten and gulped in rapid succession. Seafood har gao in four colors and flavors—stuffed with shrimp, crab or lobster—come with tiny eyes on their translucent wrappers, and a sweet-potato Pac-Man in hot pursuit. The video-game reference is pretty ridiculous, but the dumplings, no matter, are great.
Still, Ng can come across as an idea man in need of an editor. His mushroom spring rolls are excellent, earthy specimens, filled with a mix of black trumpets, chanterelles and dried porcini when available. But the accompanying crispy palm trees (shredded spring roll wrappers) are extraneously showy. Grilled eggplant, enoki mushrooms and greens in a high-concept salad seem to sprout from a gray layer of soil—a bizarre mix of mashed avocado, hummus and bean curd. While the veggies are tasty enough in their seaweed dressing, the mush underneath is like bad party dip.
Head straight for the family-style entrées instead. Although there’s a beautiful pricey steak—Creekstone Farms rib eye in a tenderizing marinade of fresh papaya and soy—the real draw for the neighborhood is the stuff that’s most recognizably Chinese, given the dearth of good Sino restaurants nearby. Ng’s barbecued pork belly is sweet, sticky and black from the grill. His flaky black cod is also a winner, in a classic oyster sauce stir-fry with sliced radish, yellow chives and black trumpet mushrooms. Though RedFarm is eat-in only, the slippery duck noodles would be perfect from a takeout container, and so would the caramel-skinned chicken, perfumed in a wok over jasmine tea smoke.
Schoenfeld works the dining room here as a jovial host, turning over the walk-in-only tables quickly and affably. Even if you’re inclined to stick around for dessert, you probably shouldn’t—there’s just old-fashioned jelly roll cake and generic chocolate pudding. Bad dessert in a good Chinese restaurant? That sounds about right.
Eat this: Pac-Man dumplings, shumai shooters, barbecued pork belly, stir-fried black cod, duck noodles, tea-smoked chicken
Drink this: The eclectic cocktails include a generous and potent Suntory old-fashioned with a hint of dried seaweed, and a refreshing Patron margarita with jalapeño and mint (each $12).
Sit here: The restaurant, which doesn’t take reservations, has one long communal table with booths on both sides. Though the booths are the most comfortable option, quarters are tight wherever you sit.
Conversation piece: As first conceived by Ed Schoenfeld, the West Village RedFarm was to be the beginning of a citywide Chinese delivery empire. That concept, based around a central commissary in Brooklyn, has been put on hold.