Unless you’ve been snoozing under a rock, you know we have lately been inundated with amazing Chinese food, much of it new to the city. We’ve seen wet and dry hot pots, Chinese-Cajun crawfish boils, and restaurants hailing from Dongbei, Henan, and Yunnan. And now we have great Sichuan in nearly every neighborhood. The list goes on and on. With it, the oldest New York Chinese cuisine, Cantonese, hasn’t gotten as much attention.
But recently, I’ve been stumbling on New York Cantonese restaurants with menus that are even more ambitious than the ones of yore, and attracting hordes of people to their utilitarian dining rooms. The restaurants occupy modest real estate with no trappings of upscale dining. They take as their heart the overlapping Cantonese and Chinese-American menus, but then expand the hell out of them, adding upscale Chinese dishes. They freely adapt dishes from other parts of China, adding Cantonese flourishes.
The first of these might have been Wu’s Wonton King, which opened in 2016 just down the road from Mission Chinese. It’s a Cantonese seafood restaurant, a genre of restaurant with fresh seafood intended for celebratory meals and festival gatherings.
But Wu’s plays fast and loose with the old Cantonese menu, adding lots of lamb, the stray Thai dish, and vastly expanded casserole and seafood sections. It gained a wide audience beyond Chinatown locals, developing an audience in the food community and reigniting an interest in the upscale Cantonese restaurant, but also preserving the discount lunch menu tradition and ladling a seriously good bowl of wonton soup at a modest price. You could spend a little there, or a lot.
Similar Cantonese establishments have been appeared. Two of these restaurants, Farmers Restaurant in Bensonhurst and Green Garden Village in Manhattan’s Chinatown, are also Cantonese seafood restaurants, offering expanded menus with their own twists. Additions include ambitious soups, popular dim sum items, expanded charcuterie, and most notably, particularly long lists of premium seafood at surprisingly modest prices, often creatively prepared. Both places serve to revitalize a type of Chinese food that had been on the skids, but now holds a brighter future in New York. Here’s a rundown of both, including what to order on the long menus.
1692 86th St., at 17th Avenue, Bath Beach, Brooklyn
Farmers Restaurant, from owner Jinxue Cai, is sandwiched between Bath Beach and Bensonhurst on a strip that contains at least 30 Chinese restaurants, constituting a new linear Chinatown. The restaurant’s Chinese name is Nong Ga Dai Pai Dong, with dai pai dong referring to a form of Hong Kong open-air food stall that’s slowly disappearing, and the logo is a peasant in a conical straw hat silhouetted against a setting sun — both elements that induce nostalgia for China’s past. The room is spare and square, with big round tables. A few glossy color photos show dishes offered here, though clearly not taken on the premises.
The menu lists staples like congee, noodles, fried rice, and, yes, beef chow fun — but it also concentrates on seafood of high quality at reasonable prices. As you step in, you’ll see at least one or two of the restaurant’s signatures on every table. One is fried lobster with sticky rice. For $27.95 (or whatever the market price is), you get a pair of bright red lobsters crusty with rice starch. In the traditional Cantonese style, the flavoring is mild, so the sweet taste of the muscular crustacean shines through.
Other seafood big feeds fit for a table spread are similarly amazing. “Sautéed geo clam with beans, lotus, and octopus” ($23.95), a variation of a common Cantonese stir-fried clam dish, is a thoroughly irrational-sounding combination of ingredients that somehow works beautifully. The clam is really sea cucumber, the squishiness of which contrasts nicely with the crunchy lotus root. The octopus is really cuttlefish.
A favorite on a couple of visits was the dish simply named sautéed clams ($19.95), which featured a passel of little necks heaped with ground pork. It’s one of the most popular dishes at those dai pai dong restaurants, and a wonderful combination of ingredients that’s also associated with the Portuguese, where in the Alentejo region the shellfish are cooked in a wok-like device called a cataplana — reminding us that Macau, which faces Hong Kong across the Pearl River Delta, is a former Portuguese colony. But who got what from whom?
Dishes borrowed from other Chinese regions include lamb with cumin, which originated on the Silk Road but is now a northern Chinese standard that features chewy fried tendrils of meat accented with cumin. At Farmers, the lamb has first been poached in oil, making the meat shiny and glove-soft in a way that is characteristically Cantonese.
This being fundamentally a Cantonese spot, soups — eaten anytime during a meal, and sometimes ganged up in twos and threes — are of extraordinary importance. Several I hadn’t seen before; they may be modern Chinese dishes, since all the cooks were born in Guangdong, according to the owner. One of the most interesting, funky and subtle at once, was “salty pig bone and mushroom soup with mustard and clams” ($15.95). There’s that pork and clam combo again.
Green Garden Village
216 Grand St., between Mott and Elizabeth streets, Chinatown
Green Garden Village, from restaurateur Yan Liang, is located in Manhattan’s Chinatown, in the space vacated by Bo Ky Grand. The layout remains old-fashioned, with tables planted among pillars that interrupt the sight lines. Consistent with its status as a souped up Cantonese restaurant, the charcuterie area is vastly expanded over the regular Chinatown coffee shop, and you can see the butchers chopping ducks, cuttlefish, baby pigs, and more in an area boxed in by big picture windows.
This charcuterie attracts clusters of pedestrians, who often gather to observe the activity in the window. There are three kinds of duck; roast pork, roast pig, and roast baby pig; and three kinds of chicken. Cuttlefish, duck wing, and barbecued short ribs, along with daily specials that include offal, round out the offerings. Among ducks, Teochew braised duck (“marinated duck,” $11.50 half) has been retained, and is just as succulent as it was at the old Bo Ky Grand.
A small selection of dim sum is an all day option, but in observation of a current Chinatown fad, ten rice rolls are also available. Gloriously, these are made to order rather than stored in a steam cabinet, and are bigger than usual. Priced at $3.25 or $3.50, the fillings are so copious that some must be piled on top of the rice noodle mass rather than stuffed inside. They also sometimes feature surprising flavor combinations. My favorite features the fried dough known as youtiao. Though it’s common to see a youtiao-stuffed rice roll, the one here has been flavored with dried scallop and dried shrimp — giving it a double fishy wallop.
The menu offers Hong Kong lo meins in a separate section — a kind of lo mein that’s different from the style that’s been popularized on the menus at Chinese American and older Cantonese restaurants. These are deconstructed with the soup on the side, a form that’s literally translated as “out-of-soup noodle” in Cantonese. One which blew my mind features wontons tossed on top of noodles, presented in a triangular frame of bok choy ($8). A large bowl of chicken broth lurks on the side, but should you dump or dip or simply eat both separately? You decide.
And old-guard Cantonese and Chinese American dishes such as beef chow fun, clams with black bean sauce, General Tso’s chicken, and beef with broccoli are scattered across the menu, which runs more than 200 options total.
As at Farmers Restaurant, Green Garden Village offers seafood in myriad varieties, priced from $17 to $40 and featuring several types of clams, shrimp in the shell, the ubiquitous (on Chinese menus, at least) grouper, and vast quantities of conch. The servings are huge, making both places among the most competitive in the city for seafood, pricewise. But don’t assume, just because you see it on the menu, that the particular species is always available. Neither place, for example, had razor clams on two visits to each restaurant.
What that means is that seafood is seasonal, and you can never go wrong with asking what’s freshest. Of course, you can always take a stroll to the wall of aquariums and see which fish are still lively. Hint: Eels are always a good bet.