Let’s say you craved Chinese food of the kind snagged from carryouts when you were a kid. But, somewhat absurdly, you wanted to enjoy it in a bistro setting complete with slightly upscale decor, wine and beer, comfortable seating, and ingredients that were sustainably sourced. Don’t mind paying two to three times the normal price? Brooklyn Wok Shop is your place.
Located in a condo-sprouting section of Williamsburg long since cleansed of its actual Chinese carryouts, the Wok Shop seems like a safe formula for a restaurant. In a decorative touch filched from Ippudo, one wall is covered with 200 perfectly aligned bowls. There are low tables and high tables, recessed lighting, and a general austerity and serenity about the space—no red dragons or crawling babies or guys bursting from the kitchen running with plastic bags to their motorized bikes. Place your order at a counter in the rear from a list of mainly Cantonese dishes—though the choice is limited to a small fraction of the 100 to 200 selections normally offered on Chinese menus. In a novel touch, you’re given a number on a stick to be placed on the table of your choice. It tells the runner where to bring your food.
You’d be convinced Brooklyn Wok Shop was a good place to eat if you confined yourself to the slender list of five appetizers. (I think the proprietors missed a big chance by not calling them Chinese tapas.) The scallion-flecked pancakes ($5) are generously sized, cut into wedges, and served with the usual soy-sauce dip. Really, the fresh taste marks these beauties as some of the best in town. The salt-and-pepper squid, too, is every bit as good as bar-food calamari, dragged down only by a too-sweet dipping sauce. Ruffly around the edges, the shrimp-and-pork shumai (four for $6.50) are mainly notable for their large size. The fried chicken wings are, alas, concealed beneath a thick, gloppy glaze tasting of cinnamon. Wipe three-quarters of it off, and you’ll enjoy them.
Best of all are the buns ($4)—steamed floppy bao of the kind David Chang popularized at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, stuffed with house-prepared pork or chicken. Outwardly resembling the meats hanging in the windows of Chinese charcuteries, these fillings lack a certain funky element that would make them memorable. Of course, blandifying Asian food isn’t such a new concept. A guy named Ed Schoenfeld is famous for advising Chinese restaurateurs on what he thinks Occidental diners really want. Naturally, he’s ignoring all the foodies who have redeemed our hemisphere by being interested in the real thing. Schoenfeld’s most recent project, the West Village’s Red Farm, is like a more sophisticated Brooklyn Wok Shop, in a genre that an Asian-American friend disparagingly calls “Chinese food for white people”—complete with dumplings shaped like smiley faces and pastrami-stuffed egg rolls.
Although the Wok Shop’s appetizers tend to be good, many of the entrées are not. The menu’s pith is a series of soups ($9.50 to $12.75) that seem to be channeling the popularity of Japanese ramen, only simpler and lower on flavor. These are offered with a choice of rice noodles or homemade egg noodles, neither of which is worth eating twice. There’s a short-rib soup, a chicken soup, a soy-chicken soup, and a curry soup, among a total of seven. Each has a single vegetable thrown in, either baby bok choy or long beans, which are also available as sides. One of the things that will impress you as you eat your way around the menu is how few ingredients are actually deployed in the kitchen.
Then there are the slightly more substantial main courses, always served over white or brown rice to make them look bigger. Most satisfactory are the rice plates with either the pork or chicken, along with baby bok choy ($10.50). They become more exciting if you have a fried egg put on top ($1 extra). The entrée of hanger steak with Chinese broccoli—a riff on the old beef-and-broccoli carryout standard—features meat that, though it sounds like a premium cut, is as tough as an old work boot. The sole vegetarian entrée, black-bean tofu, offers a miserly quantity of bean curd cut in tiny cubes.
The restaurant’s centerpiece is the wildly popular Chinese-American classic General Tso’s chicken ($10.50), invented in Manhattan in the 1970s. Here, it’s even worse than usual, tiny poultry tidbits defeated by a chewy, cloying crust sodden with sugar and grease. My advice: Save yourself some money and “wok” north into Greenpoint to find a real Chinese carryout.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com.Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
Photograph by Liz Barclay