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 in NYC, at Yunnan Kitchen as well as Tribeca’s Lotus Blue. Here, the food is 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.
The restaurant 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.
Eat this: Charred eggplant, scrambled egg with jasmine flowers, fried potato balls, crispy whole shrimp, lamb meatballs.
Drink this: While Yunnan Kitchen awaits its liquor license, you might try a pot of mountain grass tea.
Sit here: The casual open-plan dining room features small tables with a great view of the kitchen.
Conversation piece: Chef Travis Post connected with Erika Chou through an ad on Craigslist. The two traveled through that region last January, collecting many of the pieces that now decorate the restaurant.
By Jay Cheshes