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Clad in a checked gingham scarf and apron, the waitress trips across a rustic bridge to deliver the casserole, doffing the lid with a flourish to reveal a well-browned chicken-and-mushroom crust concealing a cheesy rice interior. But though it wouldn't be out of place at a Midwestern church supper, "baked chicken kew with portagal sauce" ($5.95) is the latest in Hong Kong diner food found at XO Kitchen. This new establishment offers Japanese, Taiwanese, Cantonese, and European fare, in addition to things in between, demonstrating that American chefs haven't cornered the market on multicultural cooking. The fusion goes both ways including, in Hong Kong's case, back to Britain.
148 Hester St.
New York, NY 10013
The lush green mussels ($4.95) a half-dozen two-bite doozies carpeted with chopped garlic and broiled on the half shell are more Gallic; ditto the escargot delivered in its own shell and garnished with a sprig of parsley. And the pan-fried dumplings ($3.95) are Japanese gyoza, rendered in a homemade, vegetable-laced version that puts their frozen counterparts to shame. But what to make of the razor clams topped with Velveeta, the scallops baked with mayonnaise, or the ham-and-cream-laced spaghetti, items that share the menu with more conventional Chinese dishes like salt-baked shrimp and jellyfish with preserved duck egg?
Whatever their origin, the gooey rice-starch pancakes ($3.95), rolled up like a rug and crisply fried top and bottom, are just plain wonderful. The savory version is crammed with tidbits of pork and Chinese sausage, the sweet one is strewn with fresh coconut and chopped peanuts. Then there are silken congees, spumy rice soups transported in a cast-iron Dutch oven (they're sticklers for presentation here) that keeps them sizzling until the last flavorful ladle is extracted. My fave is dried scallop with ginkgo and bean thread ($2.95), as funky as a Coney Island breeze.
If you're not Chinese, the waiter will warn you off the Hong Kong lo mein. "Too dry," he says but these gossamer noodles, steamed rather than stir-fried, are the perfect starch fix for those who dread the high correlation between Chinese restaurants and grease. The best of the eight lo meins are braised black mushroom ($3.75) and beef mussel (sic) ($4.25), both of which come with a bowl of scallion-strewn broth in case extra moisture is needed, and doused with the excellent Amoy Oyster Sauce, bottles of which are lined up on a shelf. As the saucier uses them up, he tosses the empties into a huge plastic trash can.
Like the diners of yore, XO also features a hopping soda fountain. In addition to exquisite milk-based fruit shakes, freshly extracted fruit nectars with or without slush, and hot and cold puddings garnished with little umbrellas, there are assorted tong shui sweet soups that claim medicinal properties. Feeling a bit off one afternoon, I decided to test the tonic called "snow frog with milk chestnut paste" ($2.50). The waitress brought it in a therapeutic-looking white crock, and stood by as I removed the top and administered a first dose. The cold soup was beige, sweet, and viscous, and at the bottom were a handful of rich ginkgo nuts. Not finding any meat, I turned to the waitress and asked, "Are there really any snow frogs in there?" "No," she replied, a smirk spreading across her face, "only frog saliva."