One of the beauties of living in New York City is its inexhaustible supply of great food neighborhoods, which are constantly redefining themselves. Take Little Neck. It's the waterside locality in remote northeastern Queens that the littleneck clam takes its name from — but a surprisingly easy 35-minute ride on the LIRR from Penn Station. The main thoroughfare, which resembles that of a small town on Long Island, centers on a roughly eight-block stretch of Northern Boulevard that winds its tree-lined way past neat stand-alone shops dating from the 1950s, newer strip malls, many restaurants, Protestant churches, a library, a war memorial framed by blooming rose bushes, and a picture-perfect town square. You can almost hear a Sousa march playing as you pass by.
The newest restaurants these days are Chinese; in fact we might call Little Neck the city's sixth Chinatown, except that interspersed among them are Korean, Vietnamese, Salvadoran, and Italian places, so maybe it fails the "Chinatown" designation in terms of density. Among the Chinese restaurants are a Hong Kong noodle shop, a dim sum parlor, a massive Cantonese banquet hall, and Chinese-American carryouts, but the most recent and ambitious so far is Grain House. It appeared a couple of months ago in a space that used to be an Italian establishment called Conti's.
Grain House didn't do much in the way of redecoration, and the medieval-looking light fixtures, beige walls, lace tablecloths, and painting of a Tuscan village beside the bar remain. But the décor doesn't matter: The food is simply spectacular. Though billing itself as Sichuan, Grain House is a pan-regional restaurant with a northern Chinese perspective. As the proprietor proclaimed to my party one afternoon, "I'm from Beijing and the food shows that," striving to distinguish his eatery from the other, more mundane, Chinese restaurants in the vicinity.
Just as a New York City restaurant might feel empowered to serve a smidgen of Cajun, Southwestern, and California-style fare (in the latter category, I'm thinking of the current ubiquity of avocado toast), a Beijing-style restaurant such as Grain House flaunts its Tianjin, Shanghai, Sichuan, Xinjiang, and Hunan recipes — heck, there are even some Cantonese and Chinese-American things on the crowd-pleasing menu.
But the bill of fare's most prominent section is Sichuan. In fact, you've never had a better tea-smoked duck. As if this were a farm-to-table bistro in Williamsburg, special ingredients and methods of preparation are flaunted: "salted duckling smoked with Lauraceae tea" ($17.95) is the way the menu puts it. With its dark, moist flesh redolent of burning autumn leaves, half a mallard of good size arrives fully articulated, with a thin layer of fat quaking (if not quacking) beneath the supremely crisp skin. God, is it good! A plummy hoisin sauce on the side stands as a warning that you don't really need any sauce.
Other Sichuan dishes succeed equally as well, including a tangle of dan dan noodles that come in a teardrop-shaped bowl, like a monument to lost love. The dish delivers a good Sichuan peppercorn wallop, in contrast to most Sichuan restaurants in town, which play it rather mild. But if you really crave incendiary, head for Yibin burning noodles ($8.95), named for a small city in southeastern Sichuan. Found on the restaurant's separate brunch menu, this spaghetti cook-up comes gobbed with sweet soy sauce, red-chile flakes, and the aforementioned peppercorns, which will leave you gasping as you reach for your water glass. The meaty topping is mainly not meat. In addition to a little ground pork it also contains sichuan peppercorns, ground chile, soy sauce, scallions, sesame seeds, and peanuts.
One of the best things we tried was somewhat confusingly called "Chengdu green bean noodles" ($6.95). It turned out not to contain any green beans, but instead, squarish translucent planks of the mung bean starch known as liang fen, laved with a thick, cold chile vinegar — as bracing as an early morning by the seaside. Speaking of vegetarian, Grain House offers some fine fried leek dumplings, flattened like pancakes, and a whole catalog of surprising vegetables. You don't have to be a hippie taking a bath to enjoy pale green loofah (an immature form of the back-scrubbing sponge); or an immigrant from Henan to appreciate finely textured scrambled eggs and tomatoes, a recipe that originated in that region.
Nor is the food of far western Xinjiang neglected, a particular passion of Beijing residents, who buy cumin-dusted lamb, chicken, and pork kebabs from distinctive food carts. (Similar carts can now be found in Flushing, about six miles due west of Little Neck on Northern Boulevard.) Lamb with cumin ($18.95) is a heaping platter of shredded meat flavored with cilantro stems, roasted red chiles, and Asian-varietal cumin, the seeds of which are smaller and more pungent than the Western kinds. Still, you'll feel like you're eating Middle Eastern food when you take a first bite.
Among the northern Chinese flourishes Grain House offers are a couple of dishes made with puffed rice, which is the smoky tasting grain that adheres to the bottom of the pan. One example is "crust of cooked rice with chicken" ($13.95). Studded with wood-ear mushrooms and bamboo, the dish features sliced chicken punctuated with planks of puffed rice that become increasingly soggy as the level in the serving bowl diminishes. It sure is tasty, but makes you wonder: Wouldn't I rather be eating this for breakfast like a savory version of Rice Krispies?
Robert Sietsema is Eater NY's senior critic. Read his archives here.
Lede image: Chengdu green bean noodles.
Cost: Dinner for two, including dumplings or other app, shared soup, two main dishes, and tea, with tax but not tip, $60
Sample dishes: Yibin burning noodles, West Lake beef soup, tea-smoked duck, lamb with cumin
What to drink: Green tea, Hong Kong milk tea, beer, ice water
Bonus tip: A few blocks north of Northern Boulevard at the end of Little Neck Parkway find Udall’s Cove, the last remaining salt marsh on the city’s north shore. Trails make it perfect for a pre- or post-meal hike