It’s not every chef who can explain the relative numbing qualities of Sichuan peppercorns and pain medication.
So it is with Tom Lo, the self-styled doctor by day, chef by night who runs an anesthesiology practice in Queens. He’s a partner in Chi Restaurant and Bar, which opened late last year in Midtown West near a corridor that’s seeing an uptick in Chinese restaurants. You might call it fancy, because it’s sleek decor, or hand-crafted cocktails, or a beef tendon and caviar dish that happens to have been inspired by Wylie Dufresne.
Lo — who has formal culinary training — is legitimately a doctor by day, the chef by night — and every other time, apparently. Tom Lei (aka “Little Tom”), “Tom is here 24 hours a day,” says Lo of his partner and friend.
When asked whether he sleeps at the restaurant, Lo says of Lei, “Sometimes…No, no, not really…I think he has.”
The two Toms met at Spy C, Lei’s restaurant in Forest Hills, where Lo stumbled in one morning six years ago after a 24-hour hospital shift. “I just needed some Chinese food,” said Lo. “The number two special, General Tso’s chicken with pork fried rice, egg roll. I order cucumber salad and I’m like ‘Jesus Christ, this is the best cucumber salad I’ve ever had. I have to meet the chef.’”
Those tongue-tingling cucumbers are on the menu at Chi, which showcases various Chinese cuisines, but bends heaviest towards Sichuan. The award for Chi’s most outstanding pile of humble vegetables goes to the sauteed white mushrooms In preserved egg yolk sauce ($18). They’re the very last item on the fifth page of the menu — about where you’d find liver and onions or sole almondine at a Greek diner. The mushrooms are a spin on a traditional Cantonese lobster dish, born one off-night at Spy C when Lo and Lei were messing around in the kitchen with chef Mark Ladner.
The ”secret” is an ingredient that’s hiding in plain sight in Chinese supermarkets all across NYC: Cured (aka salted) duck egg yolks. At Chi, they’re steamed to soften, then crumbled to the texture of wet sand. As soon as the eggs hit the smoking wok they begin to froth and foam, shifting from solid to liquid without complaint. Lei adds salt, sugar, powdered chicken bouillon, and a drop of yellow food coloring, then white beech mushroom that he’s blanched, dredged, and deep-fried to a gentle crunch. He tosses to coat with a few flicks of his wrist, slides the glossy mushrooms onto a plate, and pretends to season them like Salt Bae.
If you’re not eating cured duck yolks on the regular, there’s a real what the fuck is happening here? quality to these mushrooms that makes them hard to put down. (Sort of like when Lei tasted ceviche for the first time, he tried slurping all the liquid straight out of the giant metal mixing bowl.) They’re somehow wet and dry at the same time, the yolk “sauce” — can we even call it that? — wraps itself around your tongue, and the trinity of salt, sugar, and chicken powder echoes hauntingly of a Cool Ranch Dorito.
That seasoning is carefully calibrated to keep you coming back; same for those cucumbers — gently sweet with a chile oil and black vinegar kick — or wobbling hunks of mala pork trotters slow-cooked with chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, and Chinese medicinal herbs.
“Being an anesthesiologist is very similar to being a chef. In the kitchen we’re always balancing flavors, right? We’re balancing sweetness with spice and acidity and bitterness. When I’m in the operating room I’m doing the same thing,” says Lo. “The mentality’s the same.”