James Beard Rising Star chef nominee Danny Bowien thrilled New Yorkers in May with one of the year’s hottest openings—a Lower East Side outpost of his wildly popular San Francisco eatery. Like the West Coast original, the New York joint is notable for both its charity (75 cents of every large dish is donated to a nonprofit) and inspired plates made with top-notch ingredients.
The setting: The digs are decidedly downtown at this 39-seat spot, where diners can wait up to two and a half hours to sit elbow to elbow beneath neon purple lights and an enormous red-lit dragon surfing across the ceiling. Even the bathrooms sport a freewheeling vibe—the one on the right is an homage to Twin Peaks, with the cultish series’s hypnotizing theme song piped in on speakers, and a framed photo of show character Laura Palmer.
The fare: Bowien takes a liberal approach to Chinese cuisine, remixing traditional recipes and ingredients to create fresh, exciting dishes. The inspiration for his tea-smoked eel rolls is the Chinese breakfast staple zhaliang, a long doughnut wrapped in a rice noodle. But Bowien swaps out the fried-dough fritters to compose a surf-and-turf riff, made with slices of smoked eel and pulled pork trotter, plus crunchy celery and crispy fish skin. In another signature plate, he improves on the spicy classic kung pao by tossing chewy strips of house-smoked pastrami and shredded potatoes in with deep-fried peanuts and toasted chilies. We also fell for the homey stir-fry of fatty pork jowl and radish quarters, which get an herbaceous kick from aromatic mint and sesame leaves.
Last August, bankers-turned-restaurateurs Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang debuted this pretty, personalized canteen, showcasing the food of their native China in a warm space that provides a respite from midtown’s drab corporate chainlets.
The setting: The husband-and-wife team took their inspiration from Shanghai’s 1930s golden age—when the city was dubbed the “Paris of the Orient”—for this elegant spot, daubed in robin’s-egg blue and done up with vintage-style prints of glamorous Chinese movie stars from the era. At the entrance, reedy bamboo trees flutter by the front doors, flung open onto the street. The back room—styled with book-lined shelves, a dark-stained mahogany credenza and glowing tiered chandeliers—feels like the intimate salon of a boom-time Chinese ambassador.
The fare: The focused menu highlights Szechuan standbys—like dandan noodles, mapo tofu and spicy beef tendon—here stripped of MSG and made to order, so that each dish displays bright, distinctive flavors. A cold appetizer of spicy bone-in diced rabbit isn’t obliterated with scorching heat; the addictive snack of dark, gamey meat is enlivened with a vinegar-spiked chili dressing, a hint of pepper and crunchy peanuts, making the task of chewing around the bone well worth it. In one delicate fish dish (pictured), opalescent sole fillets, which sit atop a pile of wilted pea shoots, are splashed with a light soy-tinged sauce and showered with shredded scallions, fresh cilantro, julienned ginger and chunks of green chili. The Szechuan-style braised pork offers more robust flavors, with slabs of soy-and-chili-marinated pork belly offset by pickled mustard-green shoots and steamed spinach.
Flushing may be the epicenter of regional Chinese eats, but the remote Queens neighborhood offers little in the way of contemporary design. That changed in mid-May, when the team behind Xi’an Famous Foods—the excellent takeout chainlet defined by its fiery hand-pulled noodles and head-nodding hip-hop soundtrack—opened this breezy table-service restaurant, bringing a bit of modernism to the end of the 7 line.
The setting: The 40-seat dining room forgoes the red-and-gold banquet-hall look, so common in Chinatown, in favor of a more minimalist approach. Dark-wood high-top tables, dangling Edison lightbulbs and colorful illustrations—including a woodblocklike print depicting a busy kitchen—decorate the high-ceilinged eatery.
The fare: The name Biang! is a reference to the sound created when hand-stretched noodle dough is slapped against the counter. Accordingly, much of the menu is devoted to noodle dishes, the same superlative strips found at Xi’an locations around the city. You can find TONY-approved favorites, like liáng pí (refreshing cold wheat noodles mixed with seitan, cucumber, sprouts and a zippy chili dressing). But the expanded menu also includes unfamiliar finds from Xi’an, the ancient city along the Silk Road in interior China, including soup dumplings enveloping pink nuggets of lamb and a sweet-and-sour sauce; crisp fiddlehead ferns (pictured) dressed in soy and vinegar; and a section of chuan, or skewered meats. We especially liked the delectable zi rán yáng ròu chuan, firm morsels of lamb dusted with spicy chili powder and earthy cumin and barbecued over hot flames.
Chinese-American Erika Chou (the Standard Grill) teamed up with chef Travis Post (Franny’s) for her first restaurant: a sleek ode to the cuisine of Yunnan, the southwestern Chinese province distinctive for its light, clean cooking and produce-focused plates.
The setting: Hanging wire-basket lights, exposed-brick walls and a tin-tiled ceiling are stylish touches, but most eyes will be glued to the tall windows, which offer a view of the bustling LES streets. The design-minded Chou, whose former career was in fashion, has also framed collectibles (a graphic tiger rug, massive heirloom jewelry pieces and intricate colorful belts) from her travels through China and hung them on the walls.
The fare: Compared with the heavier dishes of Canton and Hunan, the food from Yunnan seems dead simple—a handful of fresh ingredients, cooked minimally and unadulterated by gloopy sauces. A hot stir-fry of springy wood-ear mushrooms is boosted by bitter celery and tender lily bulbs—a straight shot of forest and garden flavors. Off the shao kao section of barbecued proteins, we were particularly taken with the juicy lamb meatballs (pictured): Post pats the ground meat into rounds with pungent pickled chive blossoms, grills them on skewers and sprinkles them with a chili spice blend. Some dishes betray Yunnan’s border influences of Vietnam, Burma and Laos. In one item, reminiscent of the Vietnamese seaside snack of prawns dressed with calamansi juice, Post flash-fries large whole shrimp in a wok with salt and wild lime leaves, giving their shells a crackling finish and sweet, citrusy perfume