By Janis Turk
The ancient Chinese poet Tao Yuanming describes a utopian land set in the northeast Yunnan Province of China, an area folded quietly into the southwest corner of China bordering Tibet, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma). James Hilton also wrote about this idyllic Shangri-La in Lost Horizon—a magical hidden mountain valley, home to fresh air, fertile farm lands and shining happy people.
Here in New York, tucked away on a quiet block of Clinton Street in the East Village, a bright brick and mortar culinary Shangri-La Yunnan Kitchen conjures that same mythical geography of bliss.
Drawing upon the diverse flavors, cultures and cooking techniques of the real Yunnan province, Chef Doron Wong combines farm-fresh ingredients with refreshing Yunnan flavors to create a sizzling little small-plates menu that is changing the NY Chinese restaurant scene.
A late-night supper with friends began with small plates of fresh Woodear mushrooms, young soybeans and pickled chilies; a chrysanthemum salad with a hawthorn and sesame vinaigrette dressing; and spicy pulled pork noodles with chrysanthemum greens and cherry tomatoes drizzled with aromatic chili oil.
Seated at a small table set along a large plate glass window looking over the street, we enjoyed the clean well-lighted space of exposed brick walls, a wooden built-in banquette, soft lighting, oversized Asian art and the happy electric hum of pleased dinners.
Next we crowded our little table with more dishes, like lamb meatballs Shao Kao with Yunnan spices; crispy whole prawns sprawling on a lime leaf; multi-grain congee served with soft cooked egg, peanuts and crispy shallots. Aromatic Jasmine rice and Ma La Chicken Wings seasoned with “numbing spices” (Sichuan peppers would be my guess) rounded out our pleasant late-night Lower East Side dinner.
Often called Dian cuisine, Yunnan cooking is known for its eclectic fusion of subtle flavors, ingredients and techniques echoing the intricate influences of the flavors of its Burmese, Thai and Tibetan neighbors. The commingling of cuisines from the more than 25 ethnic minority tribes living in the Yunnan region culminates in distinctive, flavorful dishes featuring lots of mushrooms and delicate edible flowers. Chef Doron Wong and Yunnan Kitchen owner Erika Chou ate their way through the Yunnanese restaurants of Beijing and Shanghai before they came back to NY to create their menu.
With a discriminating little wine list and a full bar featuring house cocktails, an array of herbal teas, organic coffees, bottled beer and 6 interesting draft beers (like Alphabet City easy blond golden ale and Sixpoint Bengali tiger ipa), you won’t go thirsty in this little NY Shangri-La.
As our little tired and full little band of friends dispersed, I knew it wouldn’t be long until we’d meet again at Yunnan Kitchen.
79 Clinton St.
NY, NY 10002