One of the better views of the giant shawarma at Hudson Yards — and the Hudson River and Weehawken beyond — is from the tiny tables and undulant banquettes in the fifth-floor dining room of Wild Ink. Seating 175 in four areas, the restaurant is the first project outside the UK by caterer and restaurant group Rhubarb, which plans on building an even fancier restaurant on the top floor of nearby 30 Hudson Yards when the building opens in 2020.
On the other hand, you may want to sit at the L-shaped counter deeper inside the dining room, an arm’s length from executive chef Peter Jin and his 10 or so cooks. (Rhubarb has also been touting its new culinary director Tien Ho, who made waves here while at Momofuku.) At the counter, the plush heavy stools are the essence of comfort — though my dining companion required a waiter’s assistance to dismount from one. We’d arrived at 11:45 a.m. to find an empty restaurant, and were offered a seat at the chef’s counter with the encouraging words, “What other restaurant allows you to see a real chef at work?”
When the server appeared, she continued the glowing monologue. “The menu reflects the chef’s travels all over Asia,” she said, and then launched into the usual disclaimer that all the dishes were small, were intended for sharing, and would arrive at random, as if the kitchen couldn’t control its culinary effusions. These warnings seemed disingenuous in a place that expects you to drop $100 or more per person at lunch.
Indeed, we ordered six savory dishes, and they arrived in clumps of three, with no logic to the coursing. But the waiter was right about the travels in Asia part. Though the menu featured mainly Chinese and Japanese elements, there were also Vietnamese, Singaporean, Indonesian, French, Indian, Spanish, and Sicilian flourishes, and a few resolutely English touches like Maldon sea salt and Seedlip, an alcohol-free spirit that tastes like gin. The menu is divided into seven sections, entitled snacks, raw, dim sum, small plates, main plates, for two, and sides, with four to nine dishes in most sections.
Some dishes represent familiar recipes with one startling substitution. General Tso’s sweetbreads (snacks, $17), for example, features six modest lobes shellacked with a sticky red sauce. The organs were strewn with pickled celery of the Western sort; the chef had missed a bet by not using the more-pungent Chinese celery. The accompanying blue cheese mayo seemed superfluous. Another switcheroo was the deep-fried pot stickers filled with mapo tofu (dim sum, $15). These were nicely fried, though the inside proved too bland to merit the name. And where was the fermented bean paste?
The best dish we tried conformed to no rules. Celery root kushiyaki (small plates, $14) described two tiny skewers with cubes of grilled celeriac, bedded on a celeriac puree with pickles heaped upon it. Really delicious, in a vegetable virtually unknown in Asian cooking. The worst dish we tried was a hamachi tartare (raw, $18), flaunting a giant flop of science-chef foam on top, composed according to the menu of “lime, apple, buttermilk, and leek ash oil.” Hiding raw fish under such a thick blanket was a bad idea, and my dining companion and I agreed the fish wasn’t fresh enough.
The simplest and most straightforward dish was charred greens with shards of fried garlic on top, cooked so that it retained a crunch in the stems. Casting around for a dish more voluminous, we picked duck ‘a la kumquat’ (main plates, $42). French technique was showcased here with the style of French-Asian fusion Vongerichten pioneered. The confit leg was perfection itself, the skin sloughing slightly, while leaving the flesh dense, flavorful, and deep brown. The sliced breast may have been a little overdone, but the mild and agreeable citrus sauce made up for it in this scaling down of the classic duck l’orange. But even here, Asian touches were minimal.
We reached the end of our meal still a bit hungry and went for the pineapple upside down cake ($13). The pineapple was caramelized to a great chewy texture, while the cake had a delicate crumb. Man, it was good! Squiggles of Sichuan caramel radiated across the plate. This dessert was irresistible, and left us wishing to also try the coconut rice pudding and steamed bitter chocolate sponge with black sesame.
The menu seems engineered for Hudson Yards shoppers with deep pockets, out for a culinary adventure that reads more boldly on the page than it does on the plate or the palate. Remember that the restaurant is in its opening phase, so the menu might change a lot, hopefully in the direction of stronger flavors. Until that time, Wild Ink bears a passing resemblance to Wagamama, an Asian fusion chain whose Britishness is felt most of all in its restraint of strong flavors.