The advent of Mission Chinese Food on Orchard Street in May was one of the prime events of the season and ushered in an era of good feeling that saw the city’s food celebrities in an ebullient mood and in total agreement. They trooped through the restaurant’s narrow subterranean passageways, past an open kitchen, and thronged three deep by the bar in the remote dining room—wildly decorated with chairs dangling from the ceiling, red Chinese lanterns that cast a pink glow, and a snarling dragon, mouth agape. The scrum included critics, bloggers, editors of glossy food mags, and French superchef Daniel Boulud, who was seen, rather absurdly, teaching the kitchen staff how to make an omelet.
These scenesters were preeningly proud that one of the most buzzed young chefs in the country had decamped SF for NYC. They also found the taste of his food—repeatedly and somewhat erroneously characterized as Sichuan—fresh and novel and filled with bright flavors. More important, some of it was hotter than they’d ever experienced before, even though Sichuan, Hunan, and northern Chinese places in town have been ramping up the peppercorn burn for the better part of a decade. Mission Chinese was likably cheap, too, and lacking in the pretentiousness that characterizes so many neophyte establishments.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to take a more sober look. Is the place as good as the relentless hype suggests? The chef, Danny Bowien, is a charismatic character, a Korean-American with a long blond ponytail, Bermuda-length shorts, and calf tattoos who calls Oklahoma home. In fact, his fascinating menu owes as much to the Sooner State (and the Golden Gate) as to his Asian heritage. He’s also a relentless experimenter, a homegrown Ferran Adrià, who takes the strands of various Asian cuisines and plaits them into an ample Annie Oakley braid.
Confusingly, a small proportion of his creations could be mistaken for authentic Sichuan. Mapo tofu ($12.50) arrives awash in more red chile oil than you’ve ever seen before. But Bowien has substituted house-fermented fava beans for the standard soybean paste and added braised pork shoulder, chunkier than the usual ground meat. The curd is whiter and lighter, too. Damn, it’s good! Another of his creations in the same vein is smashed cucumbers ($4), a cooling concoction that coats the pale green chunks in sour garlic sauce—tweaking the pungent taste with sesame paste and coriander.
The celebrated chongqing chicken—usually a nest of toasted red chiles interspersed with boneless tidbits of poultry—is here reinterpreted using cow tripe and chicken wings, the last in a tip of the hat to Buffalo. The dish ($10) packs a prodigious wallop of hotness, not just from the brittle cayenne, but also from a coating of Sichuan peppercorns that also includes an off-the-wall touch of cinnamon, reminding you of the day as a kid when you rode your bike home from the convenience store with a pocketful of Red Hots. The chef is clearly conscious that his food can be mistaken for Sichuan—the menu pointedly makes little reference to the province, even calling Sichuan peppercorns “numbing pepper.”
Although it’s true some dishes employ Sichuan elements, other obvious Asian influences abound. Turning an austere Japanese tradition on its tender head, chilled buckwheat noodles ($9) buoy opulent wads of shredded daikon, and a cumin-bearing green chile sauce turns the soba Southwestern. Dredge around in Bowien’s chwan mushi, originally a Nipponese egg custard, and you’ll find a riotous collection of elements, including trout roe, sea urchin, and slimy little basil seeds, which look up at you like 100 pleading eyes.
Less successfully, tea-smoked eel incorporates a Sichuan-cooking technique in a dish that resembles tekkamaki, substituting rice noodles for nori. Alas, the slivers of fish have too little impact on the flavor of the dish. Many of the best selections (divided into “Small Dishes” and “Large Dishes”) offer a tongue-in-cheek component, as when cubed pastrami is substituted for chicken in a kung pao that is doctrinaire in most other regards. The chef has his thoughtful side, too: He merges classic Shanghai West Lake beef soup with the rice porridge called jook to create something more memorable and rib-sticking than either original. And the soup called wild pepper leaves ($11), featuring pressed tofu and pumpkin in a spicy broth, is pure invention on the chef’s part.
The menu is a wild sleigh ride down an Asian mountain. And it just might cause you to discard your impression that authentic ethnic food is invariably superior to loose-handed fusion.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.