Yunnan Kitchen is yet another reimagined Chinese restaurant located on the Lower East Side, and you can be sure there will be more. It somewhat resembles Mission Chinese Food in outlook—meaning that questions of authenticity, though they must be asked, are partly beside the point. The place evokes the cuisine of Yunnan, a People’s Republic province situated in the southwest, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Most of the population is not ethnic Chinese, but a combination of hill tribes that originated in Southeast Asia, who are often treated as second-class citizens by the Chinese government.
NYC has had little exposure to Yunnan cooking. But 14 years ago in midtown, we had Dai Jia Lou, a branch of a Beijing chain that presented a prettified take on the culinary specialties of the Dai, the province’s dominant tribe. That establishment flaunted a tacky nude mural depicting the Tet Water-Splashing Festival, and the food ran to steamed mushrooms in light sauces, tonic soups using black chicken, meat-and-fruit casseroles, and dishes from Sichuan, a province adjacent to Yunnan. A noodle shop in Sunset Park, Yun Nan Flavour Snack offers spaghetti-like noodles in fiery soups and little else, making it hard to judge the breadth of the cuisine.
So Yunnan Kitchen debuted with our expectations nearly a blank slate. This allows lots of wiggle room. The chef is Travis Post, formerly of Franny’s in Prospect Heights. The wide-but-shallow dining room extends along Clinton Street, with an open kitchen at one end and a bar along the rear wall that only recently received its beer-and-wine license. To eat at the restaurant, one must endure the usual lecture about how this is a small-plate place, you should order two or three dishes per person (if you’re hungry, that’s not enough), and your selections may arrive at any time. This is for the kitchen’s convenience, and it sometimes results in nearly everything showing up at once, crowding the tiny table as you frantically try to keep up.
Caveats aside, the food can be quite good. Fried potato balls ($8) might not seem very Asian, but it’s a Dai standard. At Yunnan Kitchen, the spud marbles are perfectly formed as if by lathe, and appear with a soy dipping sauce. (Apparently, the spicy fish sauce used in the province would be too challenging.) Nevertheless, the balls are so tasty—and wonderful looking—that you might never go back to tater tots again. Braised beef rolls ($10) are something you’ll recognize from Vietnamese restaurants, here rendered with superior flavor and delicacy using tender brisket.
Crispy whole shrimp ($13) turns out to be five shell-on beauties fried with kaffir lime leaves, which you should chomp on between bites of crustacean. Recently, a dish of chicken wings dusted with ma la peppercorns was added to the menu. Although you might expect Sichuan recipes in a Yunnan meal, this one seems more inspired by Mission Chinese’s wildly popular chong qing chicken wings.
One of the bill of fare’s tastiest offerings is a salad made with ribbons of tofu skin tossed with mint and cilantro in a light dressing. The menu promises chiles, too, but the burn is so faint as to be almost undetectable. The dish perfectly resembles, in composition and appearance, a salad on the Travel & Leisure website from a Yunnan restaurant in Beijing, giving you a clue as to how the Clinton Street menu may have been assembled.
The Yunnan province is famous for its mushrooms, transported principally in dried form all over China, and all over the world. While sometimes substituting fresh American varieties, the restaurant usually does well by its fungus. Especially delectable is a hot assemblage of wood ears, celery, gingko, and lily buds ($9). Seasoned with ham, the trumpet mushrooms are fine, too, but skip the mushroom rice cakes—the quantity of actual ‘shrooms is too meager. Speaking of pastas, the cold noodles with ground pork ($10) is mellow and herby at the same time, perfect summer fare.
In generally trying to keep the wild flavors of Yunnan in check, the chef sometimes produces items that are mind-numbingly bland. That’s the case with a small plate of scrambled eggs with dull-tasting jasmine flowers, which only seem to have been included to make the dish sound more poetic. Then there’s the chrysanthemum salad. Although the volume is considerable, the deep green mass is slightly bitter and unpleasantly chewy. The brown sesame dressing doesn’t help, either. And, as you try to trudge your way through the foliage like a jungle explorer, you’ll wish it had a more varied terrain and a much livelier dressing.