Some of my best experiences eating food never make it to the page: If a dining establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the third installment and here’s the debut.
Chinese dumplings have been springing up lately along Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Let’s call them beatnik dumplings, due to the neighborhood’s association with beret-wearing Beats, and the propensity of these restaurants to improvise like poets and jazz musicians on the theme of dim sum.
First came Steam. It is located at 470 Sixth Avenue, near 12th Street, and identifies as a Shanghai restaurant — you can be sure they have great xiao long bao. Offered in three variations, the famous dumplings are soupy and thin-skinned (though I’d avoid the truffled ones). In addition to classic Shanghai dumplings, a section of Cantonese dim sum offers a whopping 17 varieties, making me wonder, how many Chinese restaurants going forward are going to offer a collection of classic dim sum?
The usual ones are spot on, including shrimp har gow, char siu bao with fragrant braised pork, and vegetable-stuffed spring rolls. But more improvisational dumplings include beef siu mai that taste deliciously like Shanghai lion’s head meatballs with a touch of orange zest, snow pea leaves and shrimp dumplings shaped like little green hats, and chicken dumplings that were a bit blah, but filling (all $8.50). And yes, the dim sum is as good here as in Chinatown.
Improv dim sum
While Steam opened in the summer of 2022, Goody Fresh Dim Sum opened later in the year at 513 Sixth Avenue, two blocks north and across the street. It cultivates a more casual demeanor, but once again offers distinguished dim sum, often of an improvisational sort. The wonton soup ($7) was both tasty and unusual, with yellowish wrinkled wontons that looked like a baby’s fist. Even more interesting were three flattened egg rolls filled with Peking duck ($6), sweet and crunchy and so memorable I vowed to return soon to Goody Fresh and drag some friends along with me.
In the interim, a place called Mr. Z opened and then closed south of the Waverly Theater a few blocks south on Sixth Avenue, and, in memoriam, I shall always remember the excellence of its soup dumplings. Hopefully, Lin & Daughters, around the corner from Mr. Z at 181 W. Fourth Street, at Jones Street, will be more durable. As I sat one Saturday evening in the dollhouse-size space, chef Becky Lin and her staff were rolling, rolling, rolling thin-skinned dumplings, rolling pins clattering in the quiet restaurant. My favorite is the shrimp dumpling ($12) flavored with lime, green chiles, and cilantro, which packs a wallop of flavor unusual for dim sum.
Getting porchetta right
From 2008 until 2016 we had perfect porchetta in the East Village thanks to Sara Jenkins, a co-owner of Porchetta in the East Village, now closed. This pork roast rolled around a filling of fennel and garlic, and covered with thick crunchy skin secured with twine is native to Tuscany and Umbria, where it is served from vans parked at countryside crossroads, or in hilltop towns in butcher shops, where it’s sometimes served warm. Both venues take a thick slice and put it on a split tapered roll with no condiments; the greasiness serves as ample lubrication.
I mourned for a year or so the loss of our East Village spot and then started eating porchetta again that often didn't deserve the name. But just this last week I found another porchetta that was better than satisfactory, though not completely traditional. The Commons Chelsea is a closet of a space, mainly kitchen, located at 128 7th Avenue near 18th Street. There are a couple of sunny tables outside and ordering is accomplished at a counter steps down in the interior from a couple of wall-mounted menus, featuring breakfast dishes like egg sandwiches and burritos.
A regular special is a porchetta sandwich ($12): a couple of fat-rimmed and garlicky slices served warm on a round squishy roll. Aside from the shape of the roll, another atypical detail is the salsa verde slathered on the pork. I didn’t mind one bit, since the salsa is just like the kind I’ve tasted in Florence served on boiled meat. The sandwich is wonderful tasting — but an incredible mess to eat. Maybe bring some gloves.