Southwestern Chinese with the Farmer’s Touch | Restaurant Review: Yunnan Kitchen

A trend that I appreciate is restaurants becoming more sustainable by consciously purchasing local and seasonal ingredients. RESPECT. The movement helps out the farmers and keeps commodity crops away from our bellies. However, there are so many restaurants in New York City these days that try to take credit for sourcing locally.

Some restaurants dedicate multiple pages on the menu to showcase how many local farms they source from when the other 90% of ingredients are sourced from C-Town warehouses. Restaurants, please remember that integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. New York City diners are intelligent enough to differentiate local produce from supermarket ingredients.

Yunnan Kitchen is a newcomer that has embraced the farmer’s market’s bounty without all the fluff on its menu. The restaurant’s respect to Yunnan cuisine is embodied through seasonal ingredients on small plates.  Right now, it’s mushroom season, baby.

Two to three plates per person are ideal and fried potato balls are a must at the beginning of the meal. Dusted with Yunnan Spices, these delicate spheres are piping hot and soft to the touch. It’s the plain tater tot’s prettier Asian sister.

Tofu Ribbon Salad also offers a refreshing start to the meal. The texture of tofu skin is firm and slippery, but a revelation to my taste buds. Strong herbaceous notes of mint and cilantro gradually enter into the mix. The tofu is spicy, but not peppery. Chilies present the tingling feeling of málà that subtly lingers around your tongue until warm, savory stir fried mushrooms arrive to the table.

There are less memorable dishes like Pickled Green Papaya Salad. Crispy garlic sprinkled at the top bring an exciting buzz like you would find when eating pop rocks, but it’s still not enough to invigorate the warm shredded chicken and papaya.

However, the Crispy Whole Shrimp is electrifying. Have no fear and use your hands to suck the succulent head. If you’re in a more romantic scene, the Lamb Meatball Shao Kao (烧烤) is a juicy, less messy alternative. Fried Pork Belly might be tempting, but it’s not remarkably dreamy like Thrice Cooked Bacon from Mission Chinese Food.


Mushroom Rice Cakes and Chinese Sausage with Fried Rice are great ways to finish off dinner. The rice and noodle dishes offer tremendously bigger portions and could be a meal in itself. Both dishes are glazed with sweet and savory flavors of soy which gets more addicting after each bite. Ordering fried rice almost seems like a sin, but not when there are slices of killer Chinese sausages. If you’re with a group of friends, expect a little bit of competition for the spoonfuls of aromatic mushrooms.

There are no desserts at this time, but there is a memorable almond cookie treat for each person at the end of the meal.

On the night I visited, there wasn’t a single Asian cook in the kitchen. It excites me that Chinese cooking has branched out in New York City and a person no longer has to be Asian to competently cook the cuisine. What about authenticity? Authenticity is overrated. Yunnan Kitchen is sustainable and delicious. It’s a brilliant addition to the Lower East Side.

Yunnan Kitchen
79 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002

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The Insatiable Palate Review #33: Sik Gaek (Woodside, Queens)

Your Octopus is Now Swimming with the Fishes

Other than the love of food itself, there is nothing that New York City restaurant fanatics enjoy more than dining one-upmanship. Telling all your friends on Facebook that you had uni (sea urchin) for the first time is the first step. Uploading an Instagram picture of you devouring testicargot at Takashi means you’ve leveled up, bro.

But no achievement seems to be more audacious than completing the Sannakji Chulpan at Sik Gaek with a few frightened friends. I personally don’t understand why gulping down live octopus is at the top of the adventurous-eating pinnacle. Perhaps it’s less daunting to the Korean-American community because this is what our parents grew up with in their motherland.

The Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, featuring Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, got everyone excited about making a trip to Woodside. I couldn’t even locate Queens on a map at the time, but I had to find the restaurant no matter how far it was from Manhatttan. The Sannakji Chulpan did indeed turn out to be an evil Korean version of a Le Grand Plateau de Fruits de Mer.

A meal at Sik Gaek starts with a small plate of tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) as well as eggs two ways (scorching hot Korean chawanmushi & fried eggs cooked on the stove top). The banchan (and only banchan) is no other than a bowl of aged kimchi.

Sannakji (Fresh Octopus)

After overcoming the fear of a live, chopped up octopus crawling off of the plate, clamping on to the sides of your cheeks, and testing your gag reflex, you’ll eventually realize that Sannakji just tastes like the sea (very refreshing, y’all). The dipping sauces are nutty sesame oil and spicy red pepper paste. Sometimes you’ll get a hint of garlic from the octo tentacles. Other times, it tastes like jalapeño.

Chogae Gui (Grilled Assorted Shellfish)

If live tentacles aren’t exactly up to your alley, perhaps grilled shellfish is less daunting. The selection changes each day, but expect staples like clams, shrimp, and mussels. We luckily stumbled in on a night featuring abalone and conch that went straight into our bellies.

Haemul Pajeon (Seafood Pancake)

Korean seafood pancakes are usually available in any Korean restaurant in the city, but Sik Gaek has managed to make one of the best. The key component is the tender, quality chunks of octopus in the batter. The pajeon is crispy and light, not mushy and heavy like many other pancakes.

Behold the Greatest Prize of All: Sannakji Chulpan


The impressive pot represents a tasting of the sea. Clams, mussels, shrimp, conch, and abalone swim in a vessel of spicy broth. Live lobster and octopus are added fashionably late to ensure shock value for the guests. Allowing two creatures to slowly expire might seem unethical to many, but I assure you that this purpose of cooking shellfish alive is to ensure freshness.

After devouring all the wonderful goodies, ask for the fried rice special. Your server will proceed by bringing out a heapin’ helpin of white rice topped with nori, scallions, kimchi, and fish eggs and then mixing it into the remaining broth. Crispy fried rice with fish roe on a cast iron pan is one of the finer things in life.

Sik Gaek’s mission is to recreate comfort foods that older generation Koreans (like Mama & Papa Cho) crave during the winter time. Don’t let the fear of eating live foods discourage you from taking the trip to Woodside. Expect quality service, large portions, and endless comps throughout the night, making you feel like royalty.

The Insatiable Palate Review #32: The Modern (Midtown West, New York)

Endless Reinvention within the Heart of the MoMA

I’ve only worn a suit three times during my time in college. First, it was for my sister’s wedding. The second time was for my meal at Eleven Madison Park. Now, I’m putting my jacket back on for the third time. It’s time to play at The Modern.

Fine dining often has the connotation of being stuffy and monotonous, but restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and The Modern seem to throw away such stereotypes. They redefine the system through spontaneity.

First came test tubes of cold soup shooter that evoked memories of sweet corn in the summer season. Then arrived popcorn served on a chalice (reminds me of a pimp cup). The show was just about to begin.

 Canapés

The lights dimmed, but there were many other trailers. Two canapés (Ceviche and Marshmallow with Farro) as well as an amuse bouche of apple gelee stimulated my palate.


 Homemade Bread

Many hours before our meal, my friends and I carried the suspicion that the smaller portions The Modern would leave us starving by the time we exited the doors. To conciliate our (potentially) hungry stomachs, we unconsciously stocked up on homemade bread. Cow and goat butter was lathered onto three types of warm selections (cranberry wholewheat, rosemary olive, French baguette bread) and went straight to our hips. We later found out that the portions at The Modern are actually very sufficient. We managed to outdo our stomach’s expectations, once again.

– THE MAIN EVENT –

Dinner is set at a four-course $98 Prix Fixe. Although the majority of the diners opt for the menu, my three friends and I left the option open to the kitchen staff. Here are some of my favorite selections from the sixteen dishes we received.

 Scottish Salmon, Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallop (1st Course)

The three selections proved to be a remarkable starter to the night. Of the three, the delectable yellowfin tuna adorned with pearls of caviar proved to be the standout.  The preparation is minimalistic, but the fish (and the bivalve) are stunning quality.

 Oven-Roasted Trumpet Royale Mushrooms (1st Course)

If a king were to dine at The Modern, there is no better introduction to the meal than this dish. I remember tasting the aromatic juices from the rich and earthy mushrooms. The almonds also provide a contrasting crunch to the bouchot mussels and soft trumpets. The iberico jamón wrapped in a spoon is also a enchanting tease at the end of the course.

 Cabernet-Poached Sullivan County Foie Gras (2nd Course)

At first, I thought that a dessert course had mistakenly ended up at our table. The pickled wild strawberries are not normally what you would find at the early stages of the meal. However, the fruit truly does provide a compliment to the fragrant poached foie gras. Compared to the Pralines of Foie Gras Terrines at the first course, this preparation is sweeter, but not sugary. The black pepper caramel mischievously provides subtly spicy note at the end of the bite.

Squab and Foie Gras Croustillant for Two (3rd Course)

One lesson I learned from Chef John Karangis is that one does not simply leave The Modern dining room without trying the squab and foie gras croustillant. Normally, this dish is a two person commitment, meaning that each person gets one piece of croustillant (lunch and dinner). This dish might evoke wonderful memories of home for beef wellington lovers. The crispy puff pastry delicately holds a piece of foie gras caressed by two loveable pieces of gamey squab. The bird is adorned with a caramelized ginger jus and a bed of farm vegetables. The kitchen was gracious enough to send both portions for one hungry belly.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta (4th Course Dessert)

Good gracious. Pastry Chef, Marc Aumont is a force to be reckoned with in any kitchen. The panna cotta was smooth and velvety and the strawberry soup was a truly a tribute to the successful summer season. I fell in love with the crispy pastries that were broken into the plate. It’s crunchy, sweet, and refreshing, making it a pleasant end to the dinner.

– WAIT –

The Chocolate Cart

As soon as the desserts are cleared, a three tiered pushcart arrives at the table. HOLY MOSES. From cocoa nibs to tuiles, the sea of petit fours is a chocolate lover’s paradise.

How much can we have? “Well, as many as you want.” One of everything seems to be a proper response.

 Ice Cream Cones

There is no better send off after a three hour dinner than a celebration with mini ice cream cones. I remember a subtle of hint of ginger and maple as well as a sensation that reminded me of homemade pop rocks. It kept me buzzing the entire night.

Although the price tag for dinner is hefty (three courses + dessert during lunch is $70), the incredible level of food and hospitality provides tremendous value. It also makes me wonder why Michelin hasn’t awarded the restaurant its second star.

The Modern is a special destination restaurant that will certainly seal the deal on any occasion. Until my return to the dining table, find me in the bar room stuffing my face with tarte flambée. Both are majestic.

Find Out What Else was on the Menu

The Insatiable Palate Review #31: Parm (Nolita, New York)

Burning Down The Traditions

For people who’ve traveled to Italy, the thought of others positively embracing American-Italian food seems like a kick-in-the-face. Back in the day, the wealthier north made a conscious effort to retain authenticity while the humble and desperately poor Italian immigrants of the south did anything to support the hustle, professin’ “eat here or we’ll both starve!” (saw that quote on the back of a t-shirt at a Potbelly sandwich Shop). It was fusion before fusion and NO ONE was to speak of it ever again let alone, praise its existence.

But at a certain point in time, people should reconsider the importance authenticity and instead welcome the greatness of Italian-American cuisine. We must remember that endless breadsticks and salads did not originate in the heart of Tuscany (no matter how many times that commercial is played throughout the night).

Parm on Mulberry Street has eagerly embraced the art of Italian-American treats. Although classics like club sandwiches and ice cream cake are easily available throughout the entire country, Chefs Torrisi and Carbone strive to serve the best interpretations of these classics.

Check The Sign: When it’s on, it’s calamari time

Take fried calamari for example. Standard squid rings are bathed in selzer before being dipped in rice flour. Although delicious calamari is available at any standard Italian-American restaurant, let us remember the soft and delicate, light and fluffy texture of the fried rings at Parm. To kick up the heat index, the calamari is fried with Cubanelle and Italian long hot peppers and then sprinkled with salt and chopped parsley. The marinara (save it for the pizza knots) is good, but housemade Tabasco mayo sauce is the winner.

Pizza Knots

Pizza knots are also much better than what you dreamed of while eating Pizza Hut Cheesy Bites. It’s light and airy unlike the Bagel Bites that I used to throw down ten years ago. With the aroma of oregano and onion powder mellifluously flowing through each piece, it’s hard to put down at the beginning of the meal (dunk it in the leftover marinara sauce from the calamari). Do note that the appeal of the pizza knots slowly begin to diminish once you move on the other portions of the meal and need to loosen a few notches on your belt.

Saratoga Club *Winner*

Parm’s sandwiches are not only appealing because of taste, but also because of its structural integrity. Club sandwiches are usually split into quarters, but the Torrisi/Carbone duo leave it in halves to maintain a strong foundation (my friends and I tried cutting into fourths. We lost).

The Saratoga Club (named after the birth of the potato chip and club sandwich in Saratoga Springs, New York) is essentially a chicken salad sandwich with standard Italian-American seasonings like dried oregano, celery, onion and black pepper. Seems standard at first, but please welcome sweet-cured bacon with a crushed layer of potato chips into the mix. The crunchy, sweet bites of the Saratoga Club are more than memorable. It is, by far, the best dish of the night.

Sausage & Pepper Platter with Baked Ziti

There are three options at Parm. You can get it on a platter, a hero, or a semolina roll. Portions and prices respectively fall in that order. The platter comes with three sausages, split in half and grilled crisp. The sweet and soft essence of the peppers and onions compliment the strong, herbaceous aroma of the Italian sausage. Papa LaFrieda’s recipe is a delicious, well-kept secret.

House Roasted Turkey Hero

The turkey at Parm is certainly delicious. It’s juicy and tender and is served with a sweet glaze like the big bird you’ve always wanted for Thanksgiving dinner. Although the time and effort the team puts into the turkey is apparent, there are other (more enticing) options on the menu to try. Turkey lovers, however, will find solace after their first bite.

Meatball Parm on a Roll

This week, Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg also reviewed Parm, praising this meatball sandwich as the world’s best $9 hamburger. According to the staff, the strong 2 ½ star review got all the bankers on Wall Street all excited and caused a big buzz during lunch hour.

When I hear Meatball Parmigiana Roll, I instinctively associate the name with a sandwich from Subway. The meatball parm here is so successful is because of its structural integrity (just like the Saratoga Club!) The ball is flattened (like a burger patty) to prevent any messy slippage. The meat is still a perfect pink and soft after getting a bath in a 180 degree CVap oven for forty minutes. This oven allows the temperature and texture of the meat to stay consistently soft instead of turning tough and dry. The mozzarella on top is made in-house (of course) and the sandwich roll is from Parisi Bakery, three minutes away from the restaurant. It’s sweet, it’s savory, and it melts in the mouth right from the first bite.

House Made Ice Cream Cake

When I think of ice cream cake, I think of the hard and chalky Oreo cookie Ice Cream cake we get from Baskin Robbins during every family gathering. The ice cream cake at Parm is so good because it actually isn’t ice cream. It also doesn’t have any cake.

The pastry chef uses a creamer, softer gelato and then tops each individual layer with crumbled chocolate cookies. The outer layer is iced with non-dairy whipped frosting and then adorned of sprinkles and a maraschino cherry. So appealing, so delicious.

The no reservation system and the limited number of chairs at Parm make it very difficult to dine at a table during peak hours. However, the bar has comfortable stools available and serves the full original menu. Another upside is that you’ll get a better look into the open kitchen.

While the Torrisi/Zalaznick/Carbone team gears up to open their next restaurant in November, I’ll casually be lining up on Mulberry (more than often) to get my hands on a Parm sandwich. It’s scrumptious enough to make an Italian grandma proud.

The Insatiable Palate Review #30: Ivan Orkin Takes Over Momofuku Noodle Bar, Round II (East Village, New York)

One night only, they said.

July 17, 2012. The wait, in fact, became unbearable. My patience ran thin as the two hour line slowly began to resemble a horde of Asian ladies waiting for the opening of a Michael Kors Black Friday sale.

I thought I had figured it out when I figured out Pok Pok Ny and Mission Chinese Food’s system. Both restaurants open at 5:30PM for dinner so arriving at least twenty minutes before service usually guarantees you a table for four (even on Fridays and Saturdays).

 Two hours later, it was finally my turn. Sadly, when I was finally seated, the host regretfully mentioned that Ivan’s ramen was all gone. Although the Noodle Bar staff tried to make the members of our table feel better by mentioning that a variety of  Momofuku Ramen were still available, we all knew that it was less than a consolation prize. The Original Momofuku Ramen is indeed very delicious, but there was another prize to be had that night.

The wait at Ippudo (East Village) and Totto Ramen (Hell’s Kitchen) can take up to two hours on weekend nights, but Akamaru Modern and Spicy Ramen are usually available at the end of the long, arduous passage.
Damn, two hours of standing and NO Ivan Ramen left.

However, there was good news. Ivan promised to make a second voyage back to East Village and feed the hungry people who missed out the first time. Last Wednesday, Momofuku Noodle Bar closed its doors to the public and invited everyone who had patiently waited for Ivan in July.

Ivan Orkin brought four different types of ramen (all conveniently priced $16). Three out of the four noodles were similar to his offerings during the previous month with minor tweaks and changes in the ingredients.


Ivan Ramen Classic Shio: Rye Noodle, Pork Belly, Egg, Hosaki Menma

Ivan’s classic resembles some of the offerings that are available in the city. Our table was enticed by the warm slabs of pork belly, boiled eggs, and a rich meaty broth. We also noticed that generous portions of menma (fermented bamboo shoots) had graced the hot bowl, supplementing the hearty texture of the rye noodles.


Ago Dashi Hiyashi Shio: Chilled Flying Fish Dashi, Roast Tomato

The second selection was a bowl of cold noodles. Although I’m a naengmyun fiend, I suddenly turned into a sucker for Chef Ivan’s chilled noodles. The fragrant fish broth was accompanied by slabs of pork belly (I like this trend) and roasted tomatoes. The end notes of the fish dashi broth feature a clean lemony tone. It’s perfectly fitting on a clammy summer night.


Spicy Chili Mazemen: Chipotle, Eggplant Sofrito, Scallion (New)

Well this was a special surprise on the menu! If the chilled flying dashi is mul-naengmyun, the spicy chili mazemen is the bibim. Instead of pork belly, this selection featured a sweet, spicy, savory eggplant sofrito, tastes that you’d often find in elements of Korean cooking. When an eggplant tastes so rich, so meaty, it doesn’t have to be confined in a subsection of the menu for vegetarians. The chili mazemen was by far my favorite bowl of ramen that night.

The Triple Garlic Mazemen (pictured at the top) with tonkotsu, pork fat and bacon was also one of the strong crowd pleasers. I can only imagine it would be voted for meat lovers in a Japanese ramen contest. It’s extremely rich from the pork fat, by is neutralized by the strong acidity of the garlic. Solely eating just the bacon or just the garlic is either too rich or too bitter. However, the combination of the two contrasting ingredients creates a happy marriage. Put a ring on it y’all.

There will be lots of restaurant openings this fall/winter and Chef Ivan Orkin joins Chef Andrew Carmellini and Gabe Stulman who expect to open below 14th street.

Chef Ivan describes ramen as comfort food. It’s the meatloaf and mashed potatoes in a bowl, the Jewish chicken noodle soup. Although he is American, Chef Ivan has already won the hearts of Japanese ramen lovers through his light, refined creations. Do expect the lines at the ramen shop to pile by the minute when it opens in December.

The Insatiable Palate Review #29: Do or Dine (Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn)

The Beast Spreads It’s Love with E666s

Fourteen months ago, Chef and Owner Justin Warner garnered attention for foie gras doughnuts and mad names for his unconventional dishes. His restaurant Do or Dine became a destination for adventurous New York City diners, patient enough to take a pilgrimage down to Bed-Stuy. I only learned about Chef Warner’s journey a few months ago after he and his staff decided to serve the original Momofuku Noodle Bar menu on Do or Dine’s one-year opening anniversary (this decision was not endorsed by David Chang whatsoever). Then I began to take even closer notice once I found out he was previously a manager at The Modern.

Chef Warner and Do or Dine had always been on the food blog radars.  When Justin Warner wasn’t getting bombarded with hate mail from foie gras ban activists, he was racking up a win at Adam Platt’s Ultimate Picnic Challenge against Anita Lo and Ignacio Mattos (formerly the chef at Isa). I’ve never seen an episode of Food Network Star, but it was more than big deal when he won season 8.

Now, the entire country is waiting for him to make his next television appearance. For now, he’s still manning the telephone line on weekdays and serving delicious meals. Starting next Sunday, he’s putting an end to brunch as well. Chef Warner already hated brunch and the restaurant felt the need to meet the demand for the full menu on weekends. The crosstown G Train doesn’t seem so dreadful anymore.

Foie Gras Doughnut

A doughnut should rarely cost eleven dollars. But when it does, the doughnut better be absolutely delicious. Do or Dine purchases a delicate yeast doughnut from Dough, a bakery in Bed Stuy and fills it with a foie gras mousse and mystery Smuckers preservatives. After Dough’s doughnuts got shat on by Josh Ozersky, I almost felt inclined to hate the doughnuts as well. But Do or Dine’s doughnut is worth every penny.  It’s rich, it’s creamy, it’s tart. The creation from the Dough or Dine collaboration is a delightful treat at the beginning of the meal.

Nippon Nachos

Maybe these gyozas had one night stands at a Mexican drive thru. Our fried dumplings arrived at the table, dressed with gouda, cheddar, and masago sour cream. They are no tortilla chips in this concoction. I’d imagine that Taco Bell Japan would eagerly serve this to hungry drunk crowds during late night. I would certainly be the first in line.

The deviled eggs (pictured at the top) were one of the highlights of the night. The E666 (the mark of the beast) eggs are stuffed with bacon and culantro (cilantro’s cousin) and then tempura battered. It’s topped with a dot of sriracha to give a subtle kick.

Rice-Skate

The rice-skate looks like a dish that might have been plated on a stressful episode Chopped. Fortunately, each component agreeably flows together. The perfectly seared skate, the sweet mango, and the crunchy puffed rice lend tropical elements. My favorite part of the dish is the black beans and black bean paste that taste like concentrated jjajangmyeon (cha jang mien) sauce.

Xacuti Chimichanga

The chimichanga wasn’t as popular as some of the other dishes of the night. We did love the crunchy outer crust and the summery strawberries, but the dish fairly tasted bitter. The menu indicates that the dish primarily consists of eggplant, cilantro, and strawberries. This gave our table the impression that it was on the list of options purely to please the vegetarians and vegans.

A Chicken and Woffals

The chicken and woffals was the biggest hit of the night. The cornish game hen goes through a process of roasting and frying which gives a crisp exterior and moist interior. The waffle under the whole chicken is pleasantly sweet, providing a wonderful match for the chicken. Unlike Roscoe’s or the Waffle House, Do or Dine serves its chicken and waffles with a spoonful of chicken liver pâté. It’s a buttery supplement to the finger-lickin’ good chicken.

A FISH and Some Chips

At last, the grand finale of the night. The dish is a crunchy whole snapper served with fries and yuzu-shallot vinaigrette and topped with fish eggs. The snapper is moist and easy to breakdown, paving way for the yuzu-shallot vinaigrette. Remember that the fish comes intact which means you’ll have to work around the bones (not a problem for our table). The fries, however, can certainly be a long term issue for many people. It’s limp and soggy which makes me contemplate whether these chips forgot to enter their second (or third) bath. It’s not the thick, glass like crust that I look for in wonderful French fries. Perhaps it is negligible because the snapper and the vinaigrette are a delicious combination.

It’s still surprising to me how Do or Dine still isn’t as busy as other restaurants in Brooklyn. Chef Warner mentions that web traffic has immediately skyrocketed in the past few weeks after his season 8 win.

However, the restaurant doesn’t hit peak hours until 8:30PM on Friday. It’s still easy to get a table around 8PM on Saturday nights.

Perhaps the welcoming service and the innovative menu options will gradually help build longer lines in the early hours. Until then, I’ll be marking my territory in the downstairs bathroom and planning my next journey for Chicken & Woffals and doughnuts.

The Do or Dine Meal

The Insatiable Palate Review #28: Maharlika (East Village, New York)

A Coronation Dinner, Starting with Pata

To me, the visit to Maharlika was an eye-opening lesson. For the past twelve years, I have witnessed that a majority of American people conceptualize American Asian food as Chinese and Japanese cuisine, trailing many years ahead of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese cooking. Even when I knew that Chinese and Japanese food had been reduced to sweet & sour pork and prepackaged sushi rolls because of the American customs, I still wanted Korean food to receive its warranted respect in the mainstream world.  When Korean food did get its recognition, it was frustrating to see it simply get classified as barbecue.

Just when I thought my culture had it tough, I realized that Filipino cuisine was nonexistent when I was growing up in the States. How could I get mad at my American friends for classifying Korean as barbecue and bibimbap when the only Filipino item I knew was pancit? It was a humbling moment.

This summer, I discovered Modern Filipino restaurant Maharlika. After started out as a traveling brunch pop-up, Maharlika (which means “royalty” in Tagalog) permanently set up shop in East Village last year. Owner Nicole Ponseca is Filipino (and speaks Tagalog), but executive chef, Miguel Trinidad is Dominican. The chef’s use of French techniques and travels to the Philippines help him put Filipino cuisine on New York City’s fine dining map. It reminds me of Chef Hooni Kim’s work at Danji.

Spam Fries

My friends and I started our meal with the infamous spam fries. Spam is like an Asian mother’s foie gras. Although I’ve frequently enjoyed spam in Mama Cho’s budae jjigae (a spicy Korean bouillabaisse) and morning home fries, I never thought I’d enjoy strips of spam in deep-fried form. Dunking fries into the banana ketchup for a crunchy and sweet surprise. The other house favorite, Smelt Frito with sili remoulade, resembles beer battered fish sticks and tartar sauce.

Amuse Bouche

A plate of chicharrones arrives at every table. Although chicharrones are commonly made with pork, Maharlika uses chicken skins. It’s a crunchy bar snack that should only to be consumed in moderation.

Pampangan Style Sizzling Sisig

The sisig is one of the main highlights of the meal. Pig ears, snouts, and bellies are cooked three times. Braising the pig parts render the fat and tenderize the meat. After getting grilled or deep fried (the pork belly), the parts are sautéed with onions, garlic, chili peppers, chicken liver, homemade vinegar, and calamansi juice on the cast iron skillet. After a sunny side egg is mixed into the sisig, I added the large bowl of garlic rice into the hot pan. The best part is that every bite has bits of charred pork and crunchy rice. It’s a killer combination.

The House Favorite, Kare Kare

Every bite of oxtail is pleasurable. The meat instantly falls off the bone and melts right in your tongue. After the first bite, you immediately notice the impact flavor of peanut butter, a delightful, creamy surprise. Ms. Ponseca reminds me to stop taking pictures and start eating the kare kare before it started to get cold. I immediately followed her instruction. Then my friends and I mopped up all the sauce with a bowl of white rice.

The Pata Confit is pictured at the top. It’s a crispy pork leg which is brined, cured, confited, and the flash fried for pickup. The entire pig leg is bigger than my face and could easily feed two. The pork leg is topped a heaping of lardo, giving it a crunchy skin and flavorful bits of tenderness. It does resemble the pork delight at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

To cut the richness of the pork fat, we were advised to dip it in the suka (the home-made coconut-sugarcane vinegar) like we did with the chicharrones at the beginning of the meal. Ms. Ponseca reminded us that the restaurant’s homemade suka is like a fine wine.

Puqui Puqui

Puqui puqui is street slang that shouldn’t be used in some parts of the Philippines. At Maharlika, puqui puqui it’s the name of the roasted, puréed eggplant, tomato, and sibuyas (onions). The eggplant is smoky and creamy, resembling a similar texture to mashed potatoes (or cauliflower). When the kare kare and pata get a little too meaty, turn to the puqui puqui for a refreshing change of pace. I also turn to my helping of white rice (and add a little bit of the delicious shrimp paste) for relief from the beef and pork.

Maja Blanca

The coconut pudding has wonderful kernels of yellow corn and is topped with bits of shredded coconut. The generous portion of creamy maja blanca is a cool way to end a delicious evening. It’s so deceptively simple and rewarding. The Macapuno Leche Flan is very similar to flan at other restaurants, but still finds comfort in my insatiable belly.

On the surface, Maharlika seems to appear as a budget gourmet restaurant. It’s Cash only, phone reservations only, and cramped. But the food and family hospitality is more than enough to bring me back again and again. Compared to the front of house of a Thai restaurant I visited recently in Brooklyn, the servers at Maharlika seem to have a strong knowledgeable about the flavor combinations, ingredients, and portions of each item on the menu. They may not be Filipino (or even speak Tagalog), but they embrace the dishes as their own. The Malaysian, Chinese, American, Spanish, and other indigenous influences resonate through the sweet, spicy, sour, and salty flavor profiles. It truly feels like a multi-cultural family business in a modern, fine dining setting without the crazy aunts and uncles. It’s a hungry Asian boy’s dream.

Find Out What Else was on the Menu