A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the local resurgence of Cantonese food: The four places I mentioned had modernized the cuisine, adding premium ingredients, and contemporary flourishes from Hong Kong and Guangdong — the province where Cantonese food originated. One of these places, Uncle Lou, was located in central Chinatown, and provided a hopeful sign for the neighborhood’s revival. Another prominent example in the vicinity is August Gatherings (that’s temporarily closed due to kitchen renovations), perhaps too far west to be considered Chinatown, but still revamped Cantonese cuisine by incorporating distinguished ingredients.
While Uncle Lou looks as much like an art gallery as a traditional Chinatown restaurant, newcomer Potluck Club is more daring when it comes to the restaurant’s design. Open one month and standing among faded storefronts on Chrystie, Potluck Club lies just beyond the fringes of Chinatown, a block north of such hotspots as Wah Fung Fast Food and Spicy Village. With its rows of concentric lights, the entrance feels like The Matrix, but once inside the walls are a shiny collage of martial-arts movie figures and jumbled comic strips. Further in, a kiosk with a movie-theater marquee reads, “Here For A Good Time Not A Long Time.”
The restaurant is owned by a team that opened Mott Street’s Milk and Cream Cereal Bar, which includes Cory Ng, Kimberly Ho, Justin Siu, Tommy Leong, Ricky Nguyen, and Zhan Chen — the latter serving as the chef here. The menu is short, featuring about a dozen dishes plus white rice and a single dessert: no noodles. The dishes often reference those found in the banquet palaces of Sunset Park, Flushing, or Chinatown — a restaurant genre that has been shrinking, as evidenced by the downscaling of the largest of them all, Jing Fong.
A standout example of Potluck Club’s approach to Cantonese is salt-and-pepper chicken ($25). August Gatherings serves a rendition using eel instead of poultry, but here chicken remains the focus, with soy-marinated large morsels, that offer deep flavor. They are sided with – of all things – chive-flecked baking powder biscuits, a spicy plum jam, and pickled jalapenos. “Hey, these biscuits are better than Popeyes,” my dining companion said. This subversive and delicious entree might be best described as Cantonese meets soul food — and the result is love.
Other entrees are similarly innovative. The dim sum standard of mayonnaise-coated shrimp with candied walnuts that hit NYC Chinese banquet halls decades ago has been turned into an entree with the addition of the thin-stemmed broccoli-cauliflower hybrid caulilini, a contemporary favorite in Sichuan restaurants around town. The slight bitterness of the vegetable cuts the sweetness of the candied walnuts.
Meanwhile, we ate our way around the menu, sampling a plate of spicy eggplant ($16) in oil that brought out all the creamy savoriness of that vegetable, enhanced by a crunchy fried shallot garnish. The subtle flavor was also owing to doubanjiang, the fermented bean condiment that brings mapo tofu to life. Here was Cantonese interacting with Sichuan to good effect, much the same way So Do Fun has done by presenting a Sichuan menu for Cantonese tastes.
One of the most distinctive dishes at Potluck Club has a long history in Chinatown: Braised short ribs ($38) is a very beefy dish, matching bone-in ribs, dark and fibrous, with crescents of skin-on kabocha squash. Twenty years ago there was a Cantonese restaurant right on Bowery called Danny Ng’s Place,named after its chef, that anticipated this innovation. Ng’s signature dish, presented with a flourish at the end of a meal, featured short ribs imprisoned in a jack-o-lantern. The ribs were released amid a cloud of steam when the waiter slashed the pumpkin with a long knife, spilling meat and gravy into the serving platter. The current version at Potluck Club is no less formidable and much easier to eat.
Potluck Club’s short menu is an asset as far as I’m concerned, making it easier to choose among distinctive dishes. When you reach dessert, the pineapple soft serve, ($7) topped with a fortune cookie, is the perfect thing to cool you down before venturing back out into the summer evening.