Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chef Eddie Huang's Poor Pop-Up Dinner (and How I Made Him Angry)

Now you see 'em, now you don't. The phenomenon of the pop-up restaurant is ubiquitous in New York City: a temporary space exhibiting the cuisines of selected chefs, sometimes local, sometimes from abroad, via a fixed menu. If successful, it is a tease leaving you wanting more. If the converse it true, then you are thankful that it will disappear. The latter was unfortunately the case with my experience at LTO (Limited Time Only) promoting NYC chef Eddie Huang of restaurants Xiao Ye and Baohaus (a Taiwanese bun shop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan) for a week. If this menu was a showcase of his best work, then perhaps he should stick to making buns.

Interior Dining
Fixed Menu (a few changes when served)
Fried Oyster Bun

Fried Gator Tail
That was the first item to be served, and if I had to choose from the selection of disappointing dishes, the fried oyster bun was probably the least so. Served in a soft bun schmeared with liver pate and stuffed with pickled radishes, it was good. Though the oyster didn't need to be breaded and fried, with a nice flavor and consistency on its own. The same was true for the fried gator tail. The soggy breading concealed the particular flavor of the gator instead of enhancing it. Perhaps this was intentional as this meat was rather chewy, akin to sweetbreads, and not everyone is a fan of that texture. With a kick of spice, the gator could have held promise if prepared differently. The pool of sour cream it sat in did not impart any flavor either.
Cold Noodle Salad

Corn Hush Puppies
Which was another motif in this spread. Many items did not deliver any flavor profile, and were rather bland, which surprised me for a chef that is supposed to specialize in a cuisine that is known for strong spices and bursting flavors. The cold "Lian Pi" noodle salad slipped and slided in a sesame dressing that actually tasted like nothing. Expecting "light and refreshing," as the server assured as he dropped the dish, I was met with a sadly under-salted noodle soup. Embarrassingly, Cup o' Noodles has no competition. The chef managed to deliver another dish that also tasted like nothing: corn hush puppies. Topped with powdered sugar and fried to gold, I was astounded that this was even possible.

"Palate-cleanser" Peanuts

Corn Kernel Salad
Corn in another form, as a salad with leeks and ham hock, was at least more enjoyable. Mainly because I didn't have to work so hard to eat it. Yet another theme for this seemingly ill-thought out menu: too much tedium for so little result. If it takes too long for the food to make its way from the plate to your mouth, it better be worth the effort! And none of these dishes were - frustratingly so. The aforementioned dressing-drenched noodles continuously (and comically if you were an onlooker) slid off my fork and chopsticks, resisting consumption! I was tempted to scoop them with my bare hands, hands that I had to meticulously put to work in dissecting the two mountains of steamed blue crabs - one with a ginger and scallion sauce and the other overly rubbed with a spicy old bay seasoning. A messy job, which could have been masked as fun, if the crustacean had actually rendered any substantial amount of meat, which it disappointingly did not. I was left with crabby claws and note much to show for it.
Ginger-Scallion Crabs
Old Bay-spiced Crabs

Duck Wings
A resounding echo of my experience with the duck wings. Served "Icebox" cold after marinating and braised in a soy sauce, the rubbery skin would not yield to my bite, and once I finally broke through, my teeth were met with not meat, but bone. So I took to the fork, spending way too much time laboriously scrapping the tough exterior to render something I could chew on. This effort was in vain and what I could muster into my mouth tasted like refrigerated lackluster leftovers. Maybe the wings were just meant to be sucked on, but I am not in need of a pacifier (though perhaps I was by the end of this drawn out dinner, three hours too long).

Other courses were not so strongly aversive. The chewy flank steak skewers served with stringy scallions (which the server mistakenly said was a blistered green pepper - just look at the picture), was a mediocre steak on a stick. A flavor profile akin to fast-food Chinese pepper steak, it wasn't offensive and tasted like something at the very least.
Skewered Steak

Up there with the bun, the rotisserie-style half chicken with an anise-ginger glaze was a welcomed dish - partially. Still not prepared with the sharing-style in mind (as the menu proclaims), the meat was moist and filling. But yet another snag in the cloth: it was served atop a bed of ill-prepared, overly salty, hard fried rice. How can a Taiwanese chef get rice wrong? Talk about epic fail in this cuisine; at least you should be able to count on fried rice, right? It was gummy and sticky and not in the sushi-style good way. It was like Uncle Ben's Ready Rice gone awry. Suffice it to say one scoop was one scoop too many.
Chicken & Fried Rice

While all of these incongruous plates fought to settle in my stomach, the dessert was finally something that came close to satisfying. The soy caramel bread pudding was smooth and dense with a savory pink peppercorn round of ice cream.

Bread Pudding
I left feeling satiated but not satisfied. The "family-style" menu was in fact not designed for sharing, and the dishes did not appear to blend with each other. The whole concept did not seem to be well thought out, with awkwardly dim but blinding lighting that gave you a headache, and blaring rap music that did not convince you of the $88 per person price tag. Form did not reflect content. The wine list, with the average glass at $16, was presented on two white printer-paper pages affixed with a corner staple. Really? 

The lack of refinement didn't end there. When I expressed my dissatisfaction on Twitter in a brief post saying "not impressed," chef Huang went on a potty-mouth rampage like a tantrum-throwing toddler. Via Twitter, he prompted a verbal volley of baseless insults directed at yours truly, including "@RebeRoad I see u taking a dump. Don't waste my toilet paper, no comps on shit tickets." Makes for a perfect quote, as I could not have made this up myself. So eloquently expressive, don't you think? Since he couldn't conceive of a patron not enjoying his food, he was convinced that my sincerely negative response must have stemmed from a personal vendetta, which he completely conjured. He assumed that I was bitter that I got partially (and not completely) comped press entry for myself and a guest. Moreover he expressed that it was "unethical" for me (a writer, ergo, member of the press) to even request media tickets, which the press representative was in fact granting to others, including myself. If the consensus was that this was so unethical, then it was completely in their power to deny the request. But in fact they did not. I was admitted with a discounted price paid for my guest photographer, and if this would have been a point of contention for me, then I would not have accepted it and attended the dinner in the first place! But I guess Huang didn't think that through. They do say kids have wild imaginations.

Any prospect of respect I may have had for Huang vanished as quickly as his pop-up restaurant stint. While he (hopefully) works on managing his poor temper and lack of professionalism, I chuckle at how easily - and unintentionally - I roused his rage. (Though I cannot boast to be the first target of his insults in response to food critique. His bitterness, via his blog, extended to NYTimes critic, Sam Sifton, when he did not award Huang's restaurant a star - and that review was choc full o' compliments! Like Sifton, I really wanted to like it.) 

It's evident Huang does not take rejection well. Never could I have expected that honest feedback could fuel such post-dining dramatics from a well-known chef; and I am not too keen on senseless drama. Thus, let us gratefully drop the curtain on this show, as there are many more pop-ups to pop into.