Yunnan Kitchen. Hunan? No! Yunnan.

Yunnan Kitchen

THIS RESTAURANT HAS SADLY CLOSED

Gourmet Chinese keeps on popping up all over Manhattan. San Francisco transfer Mission Chinese with it’s insatiable line down the block, the fancy English import Hakkasan in midtown and Yunnan Kitchen, featuring an area in China that borders Laos, Burma, Tibet and Vietnam. Move over Sichuan. Though they’re not exactly promoting authenticity here, the influence shows with super fresh salads and local ingredients being the key, not the sinus bending spice we’ve all gotten used to from treks to Flushing. And the influence extends to a kitchen staffed by locally sourced hipsters as well. This is more evocative-of-a-region Chinese food in the guise of bistro dining. No overhead fluorescent lighting and formica tables here – this is moodier, old brick-ier, with a great soundtrack, long wooden tables and a more than decent beer/wine list.

The chef and owner pedigrees include the renowned Italian boite Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder. Both considered among the best NYC has to offer though distinctly not Asian related. But they found their way to creating a lower east side hang that is delightfully different with a chinese menu full of flower blossoms, cumin, tamarind and taro.

The menu is broken into categories for Cold, Hot, Rice/Noodles and the best place to begin – Shao Kao, Chinese street bites. We started with the skewers of lamb meatballs, tofu and the fried potato with shishito peppers. Each was memorable. Zesty, juicy, blistered and creamy. Indulgent mini Asian kebabs.

But whoa! There’s a consistent heavy hand that flavors the skewers and as it turns out – most of the remaining meal. Cumin and crushed Sichuan peppercorns. Sure it’s good and I enjoyed the food but it’s almost tiring not to mention lip numbing to have that same burn covering every dish. More depth would be welcome.

The salads are how shall I say…fantastic. I won’t make a joke about Chinese health food lest you get the wrong idea. These are incredibly tasty, and flavorful for their simplicity and quality. The dishes here that are not so liberally dressed with the usual two punch powder. Chrysanthemum greens in a sesame vinaigrette sang out with a subtle bitterness complimented by the sweet sesame. Tofu ribbons aka yuba were delicate and chewy without being gummy, and infused with mint, cilantro and chilies. Could not stop eating either of them.

A special for the evening were crisp green tomatoes and they were divine. Though raw, they were incredibly crunchy with a cool and refreshing kick that balanced all the cumin/peppercorns.

Our young server kept bussing out our dishes one after the other until we begged for mercy and explained that we were there to dine. I get the rhythm of Chinatown and Flushing but if we’re declaring cool downtown scene, pace it girl. Other than what may be newbie waitress behavior, the service is generally gracious.

Ma La fried chicken was another special of the evening and who would have thought that southwestern Chinese trumps the American south. Numbing and succulent, an obvious word but both of these definitely describe the plate offered. Plus spicy (yes, that same combo), a bet you can’t eat just one wing game.

Crispy whole shrimp with fried kaffir lime leaves were as good as you might imagine. Perfectly cooked, heads and all – that light satisfying crunch as your tooth pierces through to the juicy, meaty shrimp. Yunnan Kitchen excels at the bits of fried green that adorn most of the plates. Herbs are front and center. They’re not greasy or overdone, an indulgent glimpse into the technique of having greens taste as themselves but preserved as flecks of floral crispiness.

Fried pork belly with mint, sourced from a local pork genius challenges any memories of morning bacon. It’s crispy but tender and aside from the now ubiquitous Yunnan spicing, the fatty pork taste still shines through and lingers into the next sip of wine. In our case it was the Kerner 2011 from Alto Adige, a lovely compliment to any heat and crackle.

We closed with the mushroom rice cakes or as I will now think of them – the Yunnan answer to mac n’ cheese. Comfort food of the highest Asian order. Small disks of toothsome gluten that sell the loam and musk like a big down comforter to your unsuspecting tongue. It wasn’t that this was the most flavorful dish, it’s very nice but it’s that I just really loved chewing it.

Instead of the fortune cookies from the ghost of Chinese restaurants past, our check came with lovely ginger cookies. Another bit of surprising elegance that we don’t come to expect with our cold noodles in Flushing.

What’s good here is just that – fresh, innovative, light and highly enjoyable. But I won’t forego my favorite Sichuan or Quingdao food for the lower east side. I’ll come back here for a hit of intriguing yet comfortable Chinese, off the beaten track greens, a wonderful selection of teas, nice background music and maybe a bowl of mushroom rice cakes.

The lamb meatballs ended up on my companion’s blue slashed plate just like this. Ha! It perfectly describes how you feel at the meal’s end.

Yunnan Kitchen
79 Clinton Street at Rivington Street
212.253.2527
closed Tuesday

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