Outside the new Mission Chinese Food in Bushwick, a flat-screen television shows Danny Bowien slurping noodles. Lots of noodles — laced with peanut sauce and chiles. The chef, who triples as a punk-rock drummer, SoulCycle proponent, and model, faces the camera as he inhales a pile of ramen the girth of a firehose. He does this while shirtless.
There’s more of this exhibitionism inside, where four flat-screens show the same voyeuristic clips. A man in denim breathes heavily as he copes with the punishing effects of dried chiles. And a woman wearing a Sia-style face visor gnaws on a chicken bone.
To dine at the new MCF means another opportunity to experience Bowien’s quirky, incendiary riffs on Chinese-American fare, Japanese noodles, artisanal bread making, and whatever else strikes his fancy. But it also means to acquaint oneself with the art of mukbang. The phenomenon, which first became popular in Korea, involves people consuming thousands of calories of food, often silently, as millions watch via streaming service like YouTube or Afreeca in Korea. Various theories about who is viewing these videos try to explain the trend’s popularity, from single people looking to combat loneliness to folks who claim the sounds of eating produce a pleasurable tingling sensation on the scalp and spine.
But Mission’s sweaty videos, produced by the restaurant’s own design team, convey a more direct truth: That capsaicin-induced pain (and overindulgence) are an inevitable part of the dining experience at MCF. This is performance art as a warning. You watch as a man, overwhelmed by the heat, strips off his leopard-print polo and continues eating while bare-chested. Then you turn to your own dinner and feel your tongue go numb amid a course of kung pao pastrami.
The new MCF sits near the Jefferson Ave L stop, a slice of Brooklyn that is, for now, mostly free of luxury condos — though global beverage companies are starting to co-opt local graffiti culture with adverts of Bulleit bourbon painted onto warehouses.
Mission’s next-door neighbor is Elsewhere, an independent music venue whose throngs are likely already driving up the waits; a host quoted two hours for a two-top on Friday. Those crowds are not unwarranted. Patrons will encounter the same Chongqing chicken wings as at the Manhattan original, seasoned with a sweet-salty-spicy blend of sugar, cumin, and a serious dose of chiles. Consuming the dish is like having one’s tongue gently anesthetized by novocaine, then coated in hot asphalt.
The Bushwick location isn’t a ton different, culinarily, from the East Broadway flagship. Aside from a few (excellent) new dishes, Bowien uses the sequel to serve up his greatest hits: tender brisket with broccoli, Shanghainese rice cakes with bacon, and salt-cod fried rice with sweet lap cheong sausage.
What truly lets the Kings County outpost stand alone, however, are the environs. If the Manhattan Mission tips its hat to the upscale banquet halls of Chinatown with its luxurious banquettes and service trolleys, MCF Brooklyn serves as an ode to Bushwick’s thriving gallery community. Part of the equation is those mukbang videos. Another part is industrial-chic space, a single concrete room with a long bar and an open kitchen. Playfully eerie bathrooms boast a video installation that involves Chinese characters cascading behind a two-way mirror — meant to evoke the opening sequence for the Matrix.
And then there’s the avant-garde color show, courtesy of local design studio Nitemind. LED lights turn the entire room from purple to red to yellow to green, casting a hue on dishes and patrons that recalls a photographic darkroom crossed with a futuristic night club. This generally makes Instagramming anything next to impossible, though that shouldn’t be a problem, because Bowien’s food isn’t pretty in the first place. It simply tastes good.
Salmon roe is barely visible on a platter of lamb tartare lettuce cups; the eggs don’t give off any type of pop on the palate either. But the preparation still works. A tart lime dressing acts as foil to the heady, cumin-laced meat, while the leafy greens provide necessary crunch. Even better is a pile of drunken noodles. The kitchen stir-fries ramen with chicken sausage and brown rice vinegar, imparting the firm noodles with a deep savoriness. A garnish of pink peppercorns adds a bitter, woodsy, eucalyptus-like finish.
If Bowien were simply an acclaimed chef a few years back, he’s since transformed himself into a larger-than-life lifestyle and fashion icon. A recent GQ profile focused as much on his expensive fashion choices as his cooking. Interview magazine photographed him fully nude, save a strategically placed lobster. And an apartment-sized billboard of Bowien currently hangs above Houston Street, with the chef fronting for Moncler, a French company that sells $1,600 puffy coats. It sits just above another advert for the same company, featuring John Boyega — the guy from Star Wars. Impressive company.
His rising celebrity status notwithstanding, the new MCF acts as a reminder that Bowien remains a talented chef, with a knack for finding umami in unexpected places. He sends out warm bowls of soy milk with pumpkin seeds and crisp bok choy; the vegan broth packs as much buttery richness as a good cup of New England clam chowder. He tosses rice with butter, black yame tea, garlic, and smoked bamboo shoots; the grains convey a depth of flavor that suggest chicken stock or pork fat. The dish, as it turns out, is vegetarian.
Bowien’s non-meat masterpieces can sometimes approach the greatness of a Brooks Headley Superiority Burger creation.
Also: The Bushwick Mission lacks some of the original’s more expensive preparations. There’s no $30 Hainan crab rice, $85 hickory smoked rib, or $100 beggar’s duck wrapped in lotus leaf. The spendiest dish, for now, is the $35 salt-and-pepper lamb neck. Bowien fries the flesh until the exterior can be peeled off like jerky, while the fatty interior turns soft like pudding. The correct way to eat that lamb is by snatching it up with puffy naan.
On the subject of bread; Bowien doesn’t sell wood-fired margherita pies — a staple of the Manhattan Mission — here in Brooklyn. But he does offer wok-fried sourdough naan, which sports the spongy texture of a street-fair zeppole, as a standalone dish. He paints it with a sweet-sour blend of sheep’s milk cheese and buckwheat honey butter, anoints it with a canopy of dill, and pairs it with a condiment of smoked tomatoes and chiles that would easily sell out at Whole Foods. It is, for all intents and purposes, one of the city’s best new pizzas.
There are misses, as is the case with any young restaurant. The (controversial) Sichuan water pickles aren’t so much refreshing as they are low-temperature delivery vehicles for pools of oil. And a dessert of whipped cream with blue Pop Rocks renders those rocks soggy. So, no pop. But any sugary needs can be fulfilled with the longtime Mission cocktail favorite the Phil Khallins, a fragrant blend of gin, makrut lime-infused coconut milk, lemongrass, and sesame oil, a beverage that expertly quells the heat of the rampant chiles.
I’d politely advise Bowien to show some mercy and add that soothing drink to one of his mukbang clips. Simply watching someone sip at it brings a certain amount of vicarious relief.