Taiwanese restaurant 886 doesn’t stay open particularly late by the standards of its neighborhood, the East Village. Even on weekends, it closes at midnight. Still, drenched in purple neon, with most of its seats on stackable plastic stools, it looks like a place you go to on the part of the evening where misjudgments are made.
It is, after all, a restaurant that offers a drink called the Bad Idea Challenge, a medium-sized punch bowl filled with a cherry-colored concoction of wine, soju, sake, and Red Bull. The Challenge: If two people armed with standard straws (or one person with a bubble straw) can empty the bowl in six seconds or less, they are rewarded with more alcohol, in the form of two sake bombs.
A few months ago in Brooklyn, the owners of 886 opened a second Taiwanese restaurant, Wenwen. Everything suggests that the partners, Eric Sze and Andy Chuang, are settling down.
Wenwen has real chairs at the tables and minimalist floor lamps that illuminate an understated exposed brick wall. It’s true that one of the cocktails, the Shyboy, is basically an upgraded Long Island Iced Tea. (To be clear, almost any change to the original Long Island iced tea is an improvement.) It’s also true that the Shyboy can be ordered in a “4XL” size, served in a glass the size of the one Ina Garten drank. his forties Cosmopolitans of. It is also true that the Shyboy 4XL was priced at $69. And, like the Bad Idea Challenge, it arrives with a flaming piece of youtiao floating to the surface inside a lime shell.
But there are important differences. There is no time limit on how long you have to complete the Plus Size Shyboy and if you do, your only reward will be the satisfaction of a job well done. In context, this should be seen as a giant leap into adulthood.
That’s not the only sign of maturity at Wenwen, which has been in business at the north end of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint since March. The restaurant has a much larger and better equipped kitchen than 886 and Mr. Sze, the chef, makes thoughtful use of it.
Among his most elaborate concoctions is something called BDSM Chicken. Sit back, class – that means brined, boneless, soy marinated. Because it has been widely publicized, I know that BDSM chicken is fried with its legs intact. But because the handful of birds sell out each night within about 10 minutes of the restaurant doors opening at 5pm, I’m not sure how it tastes.
However, I can talk about another recipe from Mr. Sze’s project: farmed whole striped bass. The bones are removed and something new, a filling of fish paste, is introduced into the cavity of the fish. The batter has the airy, slightly bouncy consistency familiar to Chinese fishball lovers, and it quickly soaks up the sauce surrounding the sea bass, salty and sour and almost black with fermented beans.
The lard hides in this fish paste. Lard runs through a lot of the food, which is a good thing to say about a Taiwanese restaurant in New York. Wenwen does not whip pork fat to shock or scare vegetarians. (Its use is factually noted at the bottom of the menu, along with a request to “please let us know if a substitute is needed.”) Mr. Sze seems to cook with it because it belongs to the food he serves. at least as much as five spice powder and sesame oil. Good lard is less a flavor than a state of mind.
Apart from the stuffed seabass, the menu does not specify which dishes contain lard. Some recipes are already so lavish in their use of pork that a little extra fat would be hard to notice. The steamed rice in Wenwen’s lo ba beng is topped with pickled mustard greens and pork belly that has been braised in sweet soybeans and a little peanut butter until the borders between the meat and sauce have been wiped out.
Like many young Asian American chefs who came of age in the Momofuku era, Mr. Sze and Kathy Chen, who as head chef is in charge of day-to-day cooking, are looking for ways to step up flavors if any. I wouldn’t say they cook in all caps, but they know when to use bold and italics for emphasis.
Wilted pea shoots and thin tofu skin tissues have a crackling energy that may not be entirely explained by the garlic and Shaoxing wine they are stir-fried with. Cucumber wedges marinated in pineapple juice and vinegar until they start to turn pale and soft – if served with a pastrami sandwich, you’d call them semi-sour – are saturated with the wild flavor of raw garlic. Sichuan peppercorns, both ground and turned into oil, coat strands of vinegary celtue until you feel like electrons hitting your tongue.
Somewhere in the kitchen is a jar of what Mr. Sze calls Taiwan dust. A mix of salt, sugar, white pepper, and MSG, Taiwan Dust has the ability to override conscious will and make you take another bite before you know you’re doing it. It’s terrific sprinkled over small slices of fried tofu and helps make Mr. Sze’s Popcorn Chicken, which he imported from 886 with minor modifications, one of New York’s most compelling fried chicken platters. York. (If you show up too late for a BDSM chicken, as you almost certainly will, this can be your consolation prize.)
These and other dishes can reset your palate so quieter items can register as lacking something. I wanted the sauce for Wenwen’s three-cup rendition of chicken to be more concentrated, and I wish the vinegar hit in the cold sesame noodles was stronger.
If you’re looking for a low-key dessert, you’ve come to the wrong Taiwanese restaurant. Wenwen makes just one, and it’s topped with chopped cilantro. Lots of other things are also on the plate, including fried glutinous rice balls, black sesame paste, powdered peanut butter, and scoops of vanilla ice cream.
They are all very nice together. But it was the cilantro that made me want to finish it all, even though it took me over six seconds.