Over a period of three months, I visited Silver Apricot three times, and each meal was better than the last. After submitting my review, though, word came down that the restaurant would go on hiatus for the duration of the season; its operators promised that “[we] will be back once the city defrosts!” Under more normal circumstances, Silver Apricot, its dishes rich with culinary subtext, would have caused a sensation. But it’s not alone in choosing to pause service: So many of our top restaurants are waiting out the dark winter months in hibernation. Sadly, though all offer assurances, we have no way of knowing which places will be able to return once the weather warms up.
There’s nothing else quite like Silver Apricot in the city. Chef Simone Tong has a way of taking familiar dishes and twisting them around until they gain new life, like the shrimp and grits she inflects with white charcoal. Her food is both futuristic and grounded in culinary history. Hopefully, this review gives some indication of just how valuable the restaurant is to the city’s dining landscape, even as it dims its lights.
This is not the first time one of the chef’s restaurants has been closed by the pandemic. One of last year’s earliest casualties was Little Tong, which shut down in mid-March. This casual East Village cafe focused on Yunnan mixian, but added other fascinating dishes to its rice-noodle agenda from a mountainous province on China’s Southeast Asian border. It featured, for example, the seemingly incongruous steak tartare, flavored with pickled mustard seed and served with a flaky roti. Steak tartare in Yunnan? Well, yes, because that’s where this French-identified dish actually originated, according to Reay Tannahill’s Food in History (1973), which you may choose to believe or not.
Indeed, curiosity about the origins of food and a playful approach to it have pervaded Tong’s career. Born in Chengdu, Sichuan, she spent time in Beijing, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia before settling down to study economics and psychology at the University of North Carolina. But she chucked that career path to move here and attended the Institute of Culinary Education instead. There, she became enthralled with Wylie Dufresne’s brand of molecular gastronomy, which eventually led to a five-year gig at WD-50 and Alder.
The peripatetic chef spent a summer in Yunnan before starting Little Tong in 2017. This past July she began to open a scaled-down version of Silver Apricot in the heart of Greenwich Village on Cornelia Street, a fine dining concept she’d been contemplating for a long time. The narrow interior has been mainly a staging area for carryout, and a tented space seating perhaps 15 people stands in the street. But the current glory among seating arrangements is a fenced-in rear garden with a handful of tables and a collection of rather effective heaters, including one that flickers like a fireplace.
Until the restaurant’s recent hibernation, Tong or her business partner and sommelier Emmeline Zhao were likely to greet you as you passed the kitchen headed for the rear garden. Though the pandemic-era menu extended to only a dozen dishes, including a single dessert, every one was worth trying and represented a conundrum that summed up some aspect of the chef’s career. As she told Edible Manhattan, “It is through Silver Apricot that we will be able to show, rather than tell, New Yorkers and visitors alike what it means to us to be Chinese-American today.”
While contemplating the meaning of the menu, one was well advised to try an order of scallion puffs ($10). These snail-shaped miniature rolls may remind you of cinnamon buns, only savory. They’re served warm out of the oven in a basket, fulfilling much the same function as scallion pancakes, but looking like something served at an American tea party in the 1950s. There’s a swath of green scallion butter on the side, as if you needed it; the rolls are rich and delicious enough on their own. You can also pair them with the miniature pickles ($9 additional) that form a leitmotif of the menu. These may include beet-colored carrots, sweet-and-sour white radish, and tiny greenish cauliflower florets like trees in an enchanted forest.
You can distinguish the appetizer-sized dishes and those with entree heft by the price tags, though consistency in serving size is not one of the menu’s objectives. One enthralling dish is chili crab Rangoon dip ($19). Now, chili crab is a fiery and messy mainstay of Malaysian cuisine, while crab Rangoon has nothing whatsoever to do with Myanmar. A staple of Chinese-American carryout food I’m convinced was invented in New York City decades ago for a Jewish audience (others say it originated at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco), it consists of wonton skins filled with cream cheese and fake crab, and has since migrated onto Thai menus.
Into this web of culinary subtext, presumably part of the complex series of cultural relationships that being Chinese in America means, strides Tong’s amazing dip, a version of crab Rangoon using real crab. Deconstructed in a way that would do a molecular gastronaut proud, a pink and peppery dairy sauce flows across the plate as if originating in the mountain of crab and pickled daikon that rises on one side. The wonton skins make their appearance as crisp chips used to dip up the sauce and more-solid ingredients.
Tong’s time in Hong Kong is referenced in the XO sauce that accompanies an oil-drenched dish of kanpachi crudo, one of the simpler and more instantly accessible dishes, along with a grilled and sliced skirt steak served with an herbal relish that might be termed Chinese chimichurri. More profound, perhaps, are dishes that point toward the Carolinas. There’s a version of pulled pork ($26) reminding us of the common love of pig in China and the American South. The glistening meat hides beneath an herbal salad like the ancient Romans used to eat, with the shreds of protein managing to taste both like the vinegar-doused barbecue of the North Carolina seaboard and the char siu of Cantonese cooking.
Perhaps Tong’s most daring experiment is her spin on shrimp and grits ($28), the quintessential Lowland South Carolina dish. The plating is strikingly like one you might see in Charleston: a chorus line of shrimp, heads intact for the flavor they confer, snuggled onto a bed of creamy grits. Pleasing further details abound. The crustaceans have been grilled over Japanese white charcoal and edged with rouille, a potent French sauce normally smeared on croutons in bouillabaisse. At the feet of the shrimp runs a river of dark sweet sauce, which ties the entire thing together. But a final sprinkle of Sichuan peppercorn powder points from the chef’s college years back to the city of her birth.
The menu offers sake, beer, and an enticing wine list, longer than might be expected and offering several bargains among the whites, featuring some unusual bottles that go well with the menu’s quirky dishes. One is Ferdinand garnacha blanca ($62), a white varietal with a thick skin and citrusy flavor originating in the Pyrenees, but grown in Lodi, California, for lighter and more acidic effect.
The sole dessert is a panna cotta topped with puffed wild rice, further flavored with grapes. Although visually, it may remind some diners of insect larvae, it turns out to have a taste that is by turns nutty and complex. It’s a dessert that will please even the dessert-skippers among us, I thought as I trudged out into the snow, and clever enough to serve as the coda of Silver Apricot’s intriguing menu.