From a diner booth in Cha Kee, co-owner Jimmy Fong describes his latest venture like that infamous Facebook relationship status: “It’s complicated,” he says.
And it is. Fong, who had previously opened Sai Gon Dep in Murray Hill, is launching the first of multiple restaurants during a pandemic in the heart of Chinatown, at 43 Mott Street (near Pell Street), in the aftermath of a notable uptick in violence against Asians and Asian Americans. He opened a day before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Despite all these variables, the Japanese-influenced Cantonese menu aspires to be a world unto itself, with the kind of ambitious cultural blending where multiple ingredients, techniques, and histories — global and personal — come together on a single plate in search of an entirely new identity.
Fong and Cha Kee’s executive chef Akiko Thurnauer (formerly of Mission Chinese, En Japanese Brasserie, Nobu Tribeca) embrace this complexity. They both describe their work with the anything-goes optimism of start-up founders. “The first draft was really fast — it took a few days,” Thurnauer says about her menu. “You just have to make it, then make it happen, then adjust it.”
“What is the vision?” says Fong. “We’re trying to work it out now, but the goal is to have something new in Chinatown.”
Anchoring the menu is a remixed version of sweet-and-sour pork that parts with tradition — even before the meat is cut. Rather than the pork shoulder used in standard Cantonese recipes, jowl and belly are marinated in ingredients that include koji and dehydrated pineapple. “Compared to the sweet-and-sour pork in Chinatown, it’s a little more bold and a little less ketchupy,” says Thurnauer.
The dan dan noodles take two of the Sichuanese dish’s signature ingredients, minced pork and spicy sauce, and places them between two Japanese staples: A bed of ramen noodles and an onsen egg. Stirring an egg into the noodles, which guests are meant to do as the dish arrives at the table, blends two culinary traditions in real time. The runny yolk of the onsen egg coats Sichuanese flavors with a creamy texture that’s more often the trademark of Japanese ramens or stir-fried udons.
Thurnauer recreates her own history in New York with an updated version of the tiger salad that she once made at Mission Chinese, one of several vegan dishes on the menu. Her version includes yuba, mint, basil, cilantro, and butter lettuce all topped with a turmeric carrot vinaigrette. For the decidedly un-vegan, there’s mala jellyfish, mussels with aonori butter with a helping of fried mantou buns, and Macao curry chicken.
In the back of the 52-seat dining room, roughly a half-dozen seats at the kitchen-side banquet offer a front-row seat to pan-Asian cultural exchange, where Thurnauer might communicate to her chefs in a flurry of Japanese, while the Chinese chefs discuss the composition of their sauces in Cantonese, with neither team speaking each other’s language, or English, fluently, but somehow coming together to make it work. As Thurnauer grows her staff, she intends to expand the menu as well. Currently, there are plans for a Portuguese egg tart with lemon curd and meringue, served a la mode with a side of soft serve.
Cha Kee’s recent opening is just the beginning of the growth to come for the team of restaurateur. Fong has four connected spaces in two adjacent buildings, and the spaces themselves combine to create many restaurants in one. Even at Cha Kee, Thurnauer’s family-style fusion is limited to dinner, available only after 5 p.m.; there’s also a daytime menu that includes a smattering of Hong Kong comfort foods. In the space below Cha Kee, chef Takayuki Nakamura will oversee a Japanese crudo bar that will open either at the end of this year or early next. Next door, there are longer-term plans for an izakaya. Beneath that is the Basement, a subterranean speakeasy that is hidden behind a door that’s disguised as a soda machine, which Fong has operated with his partners Ophelia Wu and Baron Chan for the last three years. Their goal is a one-stop multi-shop venue to showcase a bevy of East Asian dishes from day to night.
But for Thurnauer, one identity reigns as supremely as the Supreme cap she wears around the kitchen: “I’m a New Yorker,” she says. Two decades ago, on September 11th, the art school graduate and one-time magazine editor captured photos of the day’s events for Japanese publications. Now, the cultural translation happens in the other direction, with the Tokyo-born chef who has made a career of cooking Cantonese food using her own past to shape Chinatown’s — and lower Manhattan’s — culinary present.