The dish dubbed “huge curry bun” ($5.95) arrives concealed in aluminum foil, steam curling out the top. Tear off the foil and find a round loaf of bread that’s been hollowed out, the bread lid jauntily perched on top like a fedora. Inside is a salty and spicy chicken curry, the leg bone sticking out like an alien trying to emerge from a flying saucer. Man, this shit is good! When the curry is gone, we scrounge crumbs from the bottom and relish every square inch of sauce-soaked crust.
And this is only one of the culinary freak-outs awaiting you at Big Eat, a new Hong Kong party barn right on the Bowery. The tri-level interior looks like it was designed by David Rockwell on acid. There’s an informal space downstairs featuring a loft dining area and a nifty chalkboard with specials in big, perfect Chinese calligraphy (don’t worry, you can read them elsewhere in English), interspersed with tiny color monitors mortised into the blackboard. The big room upstairs is where you’ll be steered if you come with a nine-person party like ours. It’s more comfortable there, with plush circular booths and a set of lavatories in the rear that make you think of a prep school in outer space. Along one wall, Mao presides in a Last Supper mural, while a lofty statue of Shiva looks on, his four arms pinwheeling.
The sprawling 175-item menu jumps like a crazy monkey from Malaysian curries to Cantonese stir-fries to Korean hot pots to Japanese teriyakis to the roast beef of Olde England. Modern Hong Kong chefs take all of Asia as their purview, and gleefully dabble in Western food, too. One evening we spotted a dish we were sure we could identify: “crab steamed with red wine paste” ($12.95). But instead of the expected sauce of bright-red Fujianese wine lees, the monster crustacean came smeared with a basil-flavored tomato sauce. “Weird!” breathed a fellow diner, “just like Iron Chef Italy.” Nonetheless, the organism was tasty, and it was dismantled and devoured in under three minutes. Another surprise were the sampan clams. They turned out to be the kind of piss clams used in steamers, but they’d been sauced with a Pernod-laced brown gravy and heaped with something that tasted like Pepperidge Farm stuffing. Not bad.
Once we’d discovered the eclectic menu’s triumphs—like the honey-garlic chicken, the steamed pea-leaf shoots, and the nut-brown crispy squab—we started perversely searching out the duds. Though it sounded like some hippie’s nightmare, god mother fried rice ($7.95) was delicious and subtle, dotted with bits of mushroom and chive. Loaded with ground beef cooked to grayness, beef and parsley soup tasted good anyway, powerfully perfumed with cilantro. But then we stumbled on crab ravioli ($3.95). These little twists of grease-sodden pasta filled with surimi (fake crab) came artistically squirted with sine waves of mayonnaise and dandruffed with orange roe. “These are really awful,” a gal at our table cried out. But she was soon consoled with an ice cream martini ($3.95), a generous scoop of green tea ice cream in a martini glass, heaped with cubes of fresh papaya, mango, and strawberry. “Hey, this is fantastic,” she chortled.
But wait till she tries the “Hong Kong style mixed coffee and tea” ($1.50), I thought to myself as I spotted our waiter weaving toward us bearing the creamy brown beverage.