Three years ago Yunnan Kitchen opened in the southernmost block of Clinton Street. The menu aimed at the food of China’s Yunnan province, an area just north of Myanmar and Laos mainly populated by non-Chinese hill tribes. Lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, mint, and ham are common flavorings in the vegetable-heavy cuisine; mushrooms harvested in early autumn are dried and exported all over China and the world; and noodles with fish or soy sauces are often on the spicy side, sometimes via ma la peppercorns, since Sichuan province is directly to the north.
While being blander than it should have been, Yunnan Kitchen did succeed in reproducing some of the smaller dishes of the province, including things like fried potato balls, a salad of tofu skin flavored with mint and cilantro, and a warm casserole of wood ear fungus, celery, gingko, and lily buds. Yum! Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t develop much momentum. And though it had received a star from Pete Wells at the outset, it recently underwent a refocusing of the menu. I’m happy to report that the changes are largely a success, based on an early visit.
Now instead of short dishes, the menu focuses on large-format feasts, six in number. These range from $18 to $45, and will generally feed two to four people. At this point there’s also an option to enjoy half-size servings at exactly half the price — for which the restaurant is to be applauded in its generous flexibility. "We did it so you can get a chance to try more things," the waitress observed. So a guest and I ordered half sizes of two large feeds.
The first, called shao kao shangri la ($45), references the fictitious kingdom of Shangri-La that was the setting of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, apropos of nothing in particular except perhaps the fact that this collection of kebabs is not really just from Yunnan, but from all over China. "Shao kao" is the Chinese expression for barbecue, the raison d’etre for the restaurant’s new theme and hence its signature dish.
Even the half size of shao kao shangri la is impressive: a platter of five largish brochettes on a bed of charred okra, king mushrooms, and pickled red chiles. The beef short rib is the best, little boxcars of tender meat rubbed with cumin and lemongrass; with grilled fish balls a close second. Then there are whole shell-on shrimp (difficult to wrestle unless you eat the shell and head), swatches of nicely charred and slightly sweet pork belly, and a ground lamb cylinder that's something like a Middle Eastern kefta kebab. The output reminds you of those Uighur barbecue carts in Flushing.
Less successful was the "tea-smoked La Belle Farm duck" ($41). It came with all the accoutrements of Peking duck, that is, slivered cukes, shredded leeks, a julienne of red bell pepper, hoisin sauce, and a steamer full of pancake swatches. Unfortunately, the dish had one glaring flaw. While it tasted pleasantly smoky, the skin-on duck breast had been cooked rare, which is a chef move. The meat would have been much better fully cooked and tender, rather than rare and chewy. Other big feeds offered by the menu include pork ribs, Sichuan peppercorn fried chicken, fish steamed in a banana leaf, and crisp whole prawns.
There are two further sections of the menu that fly off in all sorts of directions and occasionally contain vestiges of the old menu. In the "Get Your Greens!" section, there’s an excellent heirloom tomato salad ($12) in a creamy vinaigrette dotted with chia seeds, which look up at you like a thousand miniature eyes. Not really very Chinese. And a bowl of charred mushrooms, okra, and corn, which resembled what lay under our kebabs (the waitress should have warned us of the duplication). Another menu section offers noodles, from which we tried Yunnan rice noodles, which turned out to be the most authentic dish on the menu from the province. It was wonderful: spicy, salty, bathed in chile oil, and heaped with pickled mustard greens. It engendered a strong desire to return in order to try it again, and to try the other noodle dishes as well.
Yunnan BBQ; 79 Clinton St, 212- 253-2527.