When Amelie Kang opened FiDi restaurant Tomorrow, she had goals similar to the ones she had with her dry pot hit MáLà Project: to serve her favorite dishes in China that have yet to find mainstream presence in New York. Instead of loud Sichuan flavors, the fast-casual Tomorrow focused on homey fare from northern China, where she grew up.
But this week, less than three years later, the restaurant at 200 Water Street at Pearl Street has pivoted into the full-service Chubby Princess — still with northern dishes and still largely costing under $10 a dish but with more “familiar” options, like noodles and dumplings, she says.
The problem, she says, was that many people found dishes like the tomato and egg stir-fry too “exotic.” The restaurant received phone calls nearly every day from people requesting chicken wings, noodles, or chicken and broccoli; customers would then ask questions about whether or not the restaurant was actually Chinese when the answer was no. Often, walk-in customers would leave after realizing that Tomorrow didn’t serve those items.
MáLà Project in both the East Village and Midtown has a dedicated audience who understands the food, Kang says, but it turns out that FiDi doesn’t have the same level of knowledge or openness around the cuisine. She was surprised.
“As much as we try to tell them to try this tomato and egg dish, it’s hard to get people to try these things without a better idea of what to expect,” Kang says. “It’s not like they haven’t had this dish before. People put tomato and eggs on a sandwich. But it’s not something they’ve seen in Chinese cuisine.”
Still, Kang is committed to serving the dishes she wanted to highlight in the beginning, like pig ear in chile oil or that tomato and egg dish. She’s brought on a new chef and owner Yina Hou, who comes from the Henan province and specializes in noodles, dumplings, and bao.
The hope is to “lure people in” with dish names that Americans more closely associate with Chinese food, she says. In addition to braised pork belly and fish with ginger and scallions, the restaurant now serves soups with wide, wavy noodles and northern-style dumplings, which are “a little bit fatter” than others seen around town, she says. Options include a spicy chicken, mixed mushroom, and minced pork noodles, plus pork, beef, and vegetable (cabbage, mushroom, glass noodle) dumplings. See the full menu below.
“We can at least get people excited and curious about the rest of the dishes so that they can try something new,” she says.
Another big change is the style of service. Though the FiDi lunch crowd can still pop in for takeout between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Chubby Princess will turn into a bistro with table service for the rest of the time. It will also be open on weekends and has a bar with a tight list of beer, wine, and cocktails, including Tsingtao and sangria.
Kang is no stranger to introducing New Yorkers to new styles of Chinese food; MáLà Project popularized dry pot in Manhattan. The key there, though, is that she spent much of the first two years training staff to educate customers on how to order. Even the big tourist crowds at the Midtown MáLà location can sometimes be convinced to try dishes that are less ubiquitous elsewhere the country after a conversation.
“I want people to slow down,” she says. “If we are really going to introduce our food, we need service. We need a way to talk about the dish. In order for people to try new things after they order the noodle dish, we need time for the customer.”
Chubby Princess is now open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.