For more than a century, Cantonese was the Chinese food New Yorkers ate, first in the four streets of Manhattan’s original Chinatown, but gradually spreading to every corner of the city. In the past two decades, restaurants from other parts of China have muscled in—featuring recipes from Shanghai, Fujian, Xi’an, Chaozhou, Taiwan, Dongbei, and Sichuan. Often flaunting more complex and pungent flavors, the fare of these other regions came to squeeze out plainer Cantonese in the city’s Chinatowns, while neighborhood carry-outs experienced a similar decline as Thai and pan-Asian cooking styles became more popular.
But in the past few years, Cantonese has been reborn as its more sophisticated and urbane cousin, Hong Kong cuisine. The startlingly diverse menu is rooted in an elegant take on Cantonese, emphasizing big-ticket seafood and a flavoring scheme that depends upon scallions, ginger, garlic, dried sea creatures, and a greater variety of soy sauces. While the original “H.K.” restaurants were kitschy palaces, with red-eyed dragons spewing neon fire, more modest cafés such as A-Wah have appeared, recently reviewed in these pages. Like their Cantonese brethren before them, Hong Kong restaurants are now fanning out across the city, as immigrants escape crowded Chinatowns and move to more commodious and upscale neighborhoods, principally in Brooklyn and Queens.
The collection of East Asian businesses along Avenue U in Brooklyn’s Homecrest is so attenuated that it doesn’t display the characteristic concentration of more traditional Chinatowns. Yee Kee H.K. Style is the latest restaurant to hit this mile-long strip, heralded by flapping pennants, ducks in the window, and a pair of dining rooms with red walls plastered with crawling, laughing paper babies. As with other Hong Kong establishments, the bedrock is Cantonese, while the menu also dabbles in adapted Malaysian, Chaozhou, Japanese, British, and Sichuan dishes.
Of the dozen items we sampled on two visits, three were particularly remarkable, including the irresistibly named Farmer Special ($8.50). Like a haystack, the platter was piled with toothpicks of fried taro, shredded garlic chives, slender Chinese celery, and assorted mushrooms, surmounted by a handful of fried lo mein. We wondered: Was this crunchy vegetarian dish a gloss on the impoverishment of the Chinese agrarian class, or simply a nostalgic celebration of the mainland soil’s vegetable fecundity?
Named after a city on the southeast coast of Guandong, the food of Chaozhou (also spelled “Chiu Chow” and “Teochow”) is unique, reflecting the diaspora of its citizens to Southeast Asia over the past few centuries, resulting in a marriage of Vietnamese flavors with Cantonese techniques. Yee-Kee’s Chicken Chow Zhou ($12.50) paves irregular pieces of poultry with cracked black peppercorns, then presents them on a bed of rice noodles and deep-fried spinach. The fried spinach was so much fun to eat—crisp, rather than damp and limp—I resolved to start using it in salads.
This stretch of Avenue U harbors Russian businesses, too. Perhaps as a result, sable is one of the most important fish at Yee Kee, where a thick sable steak ($22) sizzles on a cast-iron platter, spewing droplets of oil and soy sauce, making you wish you’d tucked your napkin under your chin. Surrounded by a dice of variegated bell peppers, the fish’s surface shimmers with crushed peppercorns, while the interior proves entertainingly dense, gummy, and oily.
Ten miles northeast in tony Forest Hills, an ambitious new Hong Kong restaurant called East Ocean Palace appeared not long ago. Though the restaurant describes itself as Cantonese, there are plenty of Hong Kong flourishes on the menu. The well-appointed dining rooms cater to middle-aged Chinese-American professionals who have made this upscale neighborhood in Queens home, and they bring their kids for the excellent dim sum on weekends.
One evening, when I Tweeted about “Tai Chai style soup” ($14.95), a lovely crab potage whose surface is configured like a yin yang—with tofu floating on one side of the “S” and chopped greens on the other—a friend Tweeted back, “That dish was all the rage in Hong Kong 10 years ago.” Other menu highlights included a whole flounder lightly fried and strewn with shredded scallions in a ginger-laced broth that the waitress expertly deboned at the table, offering us the smaller, crunchier bones separately. Call them Hong Kong potato chips. Boasting a Singaporean provenance, a curried oxtail stew with a thick peanut sauce was delivered in a chafing dish with a sterno flame underneath. We did a double-take when the side appeared: toasted and buttered slices of bread for dipping. Thanks, British colonialists—your incongruous contribution to the stew has completely blown my mind.