On a Mission
As has been well-established by now, I am not one to jump on the sceney-restaurant bandwagon. It’s not that I don’t want to try the latest and the greatest; I do. But a combination of minor social anxiety (does anyone ever feel skinny and well-dressed enough for trendy new restaurants? Please say no), a growing dislike of crowds (not at all caused by an inherent lack of personal space here in New York—why do you ask?), and a low tolerance for two-hour wait times at tiny spots that don’t take reservations for parties of less than five means that I just don’t tend to enjoy evenings out at this city’s hot spots.
One Solution to this Problem? Brunch.
When I was planning my last trip to San Francisco, there were more restaurants I wanted to try than meals available— one of the hazards of choosing the three-day weekend over a longer stint—and Mission Chinese was, unfortunately, one of the establishments sidelined
I thought I’d have to wait until my next West Coast visit to sample chef Danny Bowien’s Sichuan-peppercorn-spiked fare, but he opened a branch on the Lower East Side before I had a chance to buy another plane ticket.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I finally got to see what the hype was about. The wait time for our group of three was minimal, we had a minor run-in with a celebrity (one who was very gracious about the fact that I nearly tipped our table onto her, I might add; see also: Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Be Allowed in Public, Part XXVII), and the food was great—pretty much everything you could ask for in a high-profile restaurant. The verdict? An all-around win.
We ordered three large plates and two small, and received them in no discernible order. Perhaps the most impressive, presentation-wise, was the much-lauded sizzling cumin lamb breast: Served in a smoking-hot cast-iron dish, bone-in pieces of meat crowned a tangle of sauteed onions, charred long beans, and sticky-sweet dates, all tinged with lamb fat, sesame seeds, and tangy pickled onions. We scraped the charred bits from the bottom of the pan and shamelessly gnawed on the bones; this was indeed as “good eating” as our runner proclaimed it to be when he delivered the goods.
I’m a sucker for a good pickle, so I knew that one of the menu’s five entries in that category would be making an appearance on our table. One member of our party had an aversion to cucumbers, which made our decision that much easier: We selected the Tartine-inspired spicy carrots. I wasn’t expecting whole vegetables, and, given the choice, I would’ve preferred more pickle flavor and less carrot—the brine didn’t penetrate as deeply as it might’ve if they had been sliced, and, to be honest, they were a bit rough on my TMJ—but these made for a solid palette-cleanser. A palette-cleanser with a burn, maybe, but a palette-cleanser nonetheless.
My pick for best bite of the meal was a toss-up between the aforementioned lamb and this thrice-cooked bacon. That rich, fatty belly meat melded with chewy slices of rice cake, with just enough textural distinction between the two to make things interesting; pungent, fermented black beans and crunchy cilantro stems provided even more contrast, while a healthy dose of chiles gave the dish that signature Mission Chinese spin. We had bits and pieces left on all of the serving plates save this one—it was the only dish we couldn’t stop eating. I read a bunch of reviews before our meal, and the kung pao pastrami was near the top of my must-order list. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t realize its genius until I was at home on the couch, fishing the few remaining tidbits from the bottom of a takeout container. At the table, I’d cherry-picked a morsel or two of meat, chased it with a peanut here and there, and called it a day; I’m not a fan of celery, and bell peppers aren’t usually my favorite, so I didn’t taste those elements until they were all that was left. Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that the celery, slightly softened and stringiness eliminated, sidestepped my major complaint about its suitability for human consumption and provided a cooling note in one fell swoop; the peppers, also lightly cooked and juicy, did much the same. When a single bite comprised each element, it was a heat-lover’s version of perfection.
The only dish we didn’t love was the Beijing beef pancake. I was anticipating a somewhat traditional version of the Chinatown favorite; though the flavors were similar (and the quality of the beef much better), I missed both the pickled vegetables and the original wedge-shaped presentation. That’s not to say that I didn’t take the leftovers home—paired with the kung-pao remnants, they made one hell of a halftime snack.
As usual, I’m already planning a return trip; the five items we tried hardly put a dent in that two-page menu. I’ll need quite a few dining partners, though: We have to have the thrice-cooked bacon again, and the lamb…and then there’s the salt-cod fried rice, the braised pea greens, the broccoli and beef brisket (which might sound passé, but looked anything but when it passed our table numerous times during the course of the afternoon), the chicken wings, the four remaining types of pickle….and that’s the edited list. In other words, I want to eat everything. Any takers?