For all of my complaints about New York Times restaurant critics, I typically can’t make much use of their advice—even when they are right. By the time they get around to reviewing a place, there’s usually enough press that I have a pretty good sense of what is going on, even if I haven’t already been there myself (which I often have).
Wong was different. It was totally off my radar until Pete Wells gave it an enthusiastic two stars, three weeks ago. I went to the restaurant on his say-so, and ordered the dishes he recommended. I almost never do that.
Ya know what? He’s right. Wong is a great restaurant.
The chef, Simpson Wong, is Malaysian. His cuisine purports to be “Asian locavore,” although many of the dishes defy ready classification. Naan bread (left), served before the meal, seems to be the main nod to India; and I saw nothing Japanese.
The menus seem to be freshly printed, and the staff eagerly assure you that “97 percent” of the menu, including even the beers and wines, is sourced locally (and of course, sustainable, seasonal, yada yada yada). I have never visited Wong’s earlier restaurants—the now-closed Jefferson or the still-open Café Asean—so I have no basis for comparison.
There isn’t a huge selection, which for an Asian restaurant is unusual. I find it admirable that the chef focuses on a few things he does well. There are just eight appetizers ($9–15), eight rice dishes and entrées ($17–31), three sides ($6–7), and three desserts ($8–10).
About half the dishes are marked with a stylized “W”, indicating that they’re house specialities. This silly custom ought to be abandoned: either serve a dish proudly, or not at all.
Hakka Pork Belly ($13.50; above left) is as good a pork dish as you’ll find; it shares the plate with little tater tots made from taro root. Sea Scallops ($15; above right), as Wells noted, come with little deep-fried duck tongue fritters that steal the show.
Cha Ca La Wong ($17; above), Wells tells us, is a pun on a famous Hanoi restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong, where the only dish served consists of rice noodles and partly-cooked fish that you finish yourself at the table. The version here comes fully cooked in a sizzling cast-iron skillet; the fish is Hake, topped with tumeric (a kind of ginger), just slightly spicy.
Lobster Egg Foo Yong ($24; above) is a tour de force, not at all resembling the traditional dish that many Chinese restaurants serve. This winning combination of lobster claw, leeks, shrimp crumble, and two fried duck eggs, is an early candidate for dish of the year.
We don’t usually order dessert but had to try the Duck à la Plum ($9.50; above), with the incredible roast duck ice cream, plum sake, and a crispy tuile 5-spice cookie.
Wells complained about the minimal wine list, but the white wine we tried, a Rhone-inspired Patelin de Tablas Blanc, paired well with the food, and was reasonably priced, at $39. (The server called it a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which might be a stretch, though I see what he means.)
Crowds at Wong have picked up since the Wells review came out. It wasn’t quite full on a Thursday evening, but our reservation was fairly early. And yes, they do take reservations, a welcome rarity these days for restaurants of this kind.
Service, in fact, is a strength here, with plates and silverware promptly cleared and replaced after every course Chopsticks come in an attractive woven leather sleeve, and are better than the disposable kind most Asian restaurants give out. Staff understand the menu and give sensible ordering advice.
But there is nowhere to hang coats, and the space is not at all comfortable. We got a seat at the so-called “chef’s table” (really a bar) facing the open kitchen, which is preferable to the cramped and closely-spaced tables. Wherever you sit, you’ll be on a chair or a stool so diabolically uncomfortable that you’d think David Chang was an investor.
Despite that, Wong is one of the most original restaurants to have opened in New York in quite a while. I would suffer its uncomfortable stools to have more, please.
Wong (7 Cornelia Street near W. 4th Street, West Village)