Calvin Eng, the former Win Son chef behind Bonnie’s, named his forthcoming Cantonese-American restaurant after his mother, but it wasn’t until months later that he broke the news to her. He was sitting across from Bonnie at dinner when he said it, and the first thing she did was laugh, thinking it was a joke. “She was happy, but she expressed it in the way an immigrant mother would express it,” he says, meaning the word “proud” was probably not employed, but she shared articles with friends and family whenever the restaurant’s name — her name — appeared in the news.
And while the praise of a Chinese immigrant mother is often communicated in actions, not words, fans of his restaurant have been plenty vocal. They’ve followed the chef from borough to borough during pop-ups over the last year, and lined up at Bonnie’s for tinned fish and oysters before the gas was ever turned on. This week, the Cantonese-American restaurant will open its doors at long last, welcoming customers indoors at 398 Manhattan Avenue, at Frost Street, in Williamsburg on Friday, December 3.
Some New Yorkers have already eaten a meal at Bonnie’s, or at least something like one. Over the last six months, the Cantonese-American chef has been recipe testing most of his menu — a bowl of rice noodles here, a slice of egg custard French toast there — at pop-ups across Manhattan and Brooklyn. The restaurant’s cha siu glazed pork, served on a sesame milk bun in the style of a McRib ($25), debuted at Win Son in April; its shrimp and pork wontons ($16) have been bobbing in their parmesan broth since March.
Those dishes, and more than a dozen others, will now be served from this 40-seat corner restaurant, where much of the decor has been purchased in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “I think it’s really special when you can eat something and recall a memory that you had recently, or years ago,” he says. For Eng, the memories stretch further back. Aside from that McRib, the chef was introduced to many of the dishes served here at his home kitchen in Bay Ridge, or at dinners with his family in Chinatown.
There’s the savory steamed custard known as jing sui dan ($16), whose ratio of water to egg Bonnie would measure using eggshells and intuition; and an order of jumbo shrimp ($16) inspired by the plates of shrimp and walnuts the chef was known to inhale as a child at Chinese banquets. At Bonnie’s, the plump crustaceans are tossed in a combination of Kewpie mayonnaise, condensed milk, honey, and rice vinegar.
The most expensive item on the menu, a rainbow trout ($49), is also one of the most complex. The whole fish is deboned, then stuffed with the same mixture of shrimp, fish meat, and water chestnuts that enlivens his wontons. It’s what the 27-year-old chef would make with his mom and aunt when they wanted to spend an entire day together, given how long it takes to gut, mash, and stuff a whole fish.
Here, a team of boisterous chefs and bartenders, some of which previously worked at Win Son, stand-in for family. Brad Holtzman, Eng’s friend and the former owner of Taquitoria on the Lower East Side, has come on as general manager; Channing Centeno, a former bartender at the Taiwanese-American restaurant who also served lumpia to protesters during the pandemic, is holding down the bar.
“Chinese people — and Cantonese people specifically — when we go to big dinners and parties, there’s always cognac,” Eng explains, and this corner restaurant with a backyard intends to channel some of that same energy. Tsingtao beer is available in one size only — 22 ounces — and five varieties of cognac will be flowing in one to two ounce pours. The espresso martini, loathed by some bartenders, is embraced here and served in the style of yuenyeung, a tea and coffee beverage popular in Hong Kong.
The words “Cantonese American” are written across the front of Eng’s restaurant, a phrase that embodies not just his identity — as an equal lover of Crunchwrap Supremes and Chinese long beans — but also his professional experience in New York kitchens. The chef got his start at Nom Wah, the Nolita offshoot of the century-old dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. It was there, while working with the restaurant’s customers and co-workers, that he realized he wanted to engage more deeply with his heritage and, eventually, open his own business.
In 2018, he landed at Win Son in Williamsburg, where owners Josh Ku and Trigg Brown were undertaking a similar effort with Taiwanese-American fare. (Brown, who briefly stepped away from the restaurant last year amid allegations of a hostile workplace environment, is an investor in Bonnie’s.) Eng worked as a chef in its kitchen until February of this year, when he left to focus full-time on opening his first restaurant.
Notably, the chef has never been professionally trained in a Chinese kitchen. “All of the ideas behind it are Cantonese, but there will be a lot of Western influence, technique, and ingredients,” he says. He may know how to use a saute pan better than a wok, but this Cantonese-American mama’s boy says he “know[s] how to make food taste good.”
Early next year, the chef will unveil a brunch menu with duck egg custard French toast and other dishes that nod to the Hong Kong diners known as cha chaan tengs. For now, Bonnie’s is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.