Flavor and Fortune - Spring 2003
by Harley Spiller
66 Chopstick Tricks, Kicks and Licks
In keeping with today's cool, understated elegance, Manhattan's newest upscale Chinese eatery is easy to miss. There is no yellow triangular banner, the traditional Chinese symbol of a restaurant. It's just the number, "66," silk-screened on glass doors. From the sidewalk, passersby peer through gaps in frosted windows to see wood parquet floors and metal table legs. It looks for all the world like an office.
I missed the entrance, and ended up around the corner on Leonard Street, where part of the kitchen is visible from the street. A chef was busy at work amidst tall glass decanters holding the raw materials of the world's oldest cuisine: mee fun (bean threads), boxthorn fruit, apricot kernels, dried shrimp, black mushroom, hot chile peppers, dates, cinnamon bark, anise seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns. The immaculateness though, along with empty pastry shells and a blowtorch, are clues that this is no average rice shop.
There is another New York Chinese restaurant called 66, the rather plebian Taiwanese spot named 66 Lai Food on Prince Street in Flushing, Queens. The two are unrelated. This 66 was so named for two reasons. Firstly, it's the address of the restaurant's side door, 66 Leonard Street, and secondly because 66, liu liu, is a Chinese homophone indicating big luck ("liu liu da shuh" is a propitious Mandarin saying).
Once inside, the serene maitre'd walks you to your table, past metal scrims and around the cloth-less, frosted resin tabletops and matching lazy susans. Slowly the elegance emerges from the simplicity. Just like a French sauce, Richard Meier's restaurant design is a reduction, a refinement of elegance to fit the post-twentieth century mood. Dining areas and the cocktail lounge are punctuated by Eames chairs and black leather banquettes as comfortable as favorite slippers. Light emanates from who-knows-where? Creamy white walls and ceilings seem to go on forever, barely interrupted by three tiny Meier watercolors on the Southern wall. There is a scattering of the obligatory Chinese characters for beauty, clarity, moon, peace, tranquility, etc.
66 is a voyeur's delight. You can peek everywhere but not really see clearly through the frosted glass or steel curtains that moiré against each other. Diners can catch bits and pieces of chefs at work in the kitchen, but only through spotless saltwater fish tanks. The lively and lushly patterned species: snowflake eels, leopard sharks, spotted mouse groupers, silver lookdowns, parrot-fish, stingrays and lion-fish are pretty enough to inspire Giorgio Armani to create a new line of prints. If this were Shanghai, patrons would ask their waiter to net them a few of these undersea delicacies. It's New York though, TriBeCa to be sure, and these fish are for show.
Very few smells waft across the high-ceilinged room. Classy diners are often particular about food odors and 66 knows how to pamper its clientele. A server was overheard to recommend the barbeque pork buns. "They're the best in Manhattan," she said, "because they're not greasy like others." Shanghai locals would scoff at such fear of oil, and might also be surprised at the way 66 holds spices like black pepper and garlic in some abeyance.
The decidedly-young servers seemed tentative in their sloppily insouciant Vivienne Tam. Slackers they're not though, and all of the staff was hard-working, friendly, and helpful. When busing tables, Shanghai waiters typically try to give someone the last piece on the serving platter. At 66, these "grandma" pieces are simply cleared away. Hot rolled towels are offered at the end of the meal and the servers distribute and reclaim them with chopsticks. In Chinese restaurants this task is done with tongs.
The tables are set with Guy Degrenne silverware, including unique metal, long handled Chinese soup spoons, and China by Bernardaud of Limoges, France. Such lustrous wares are balanced with disposable wooden chopsticks, the kind you have to split apart. The disposable chopsticks rest on polished stones atop woven, flax-like placemats. The square red-and-white menus are short and intelligible. Dishes are given both names and numbers. It appears that 66 changes their selections frequently, taking advantage of seasonal offerings and rapidly-changing tastes.
At 1 pm the lunchroom was filling up but the communal table, which holds 40 diners two-by-two like the ramp to Noah's Ark, was empty - by 1:45 it was nearly full. Chic TriBeCans prefer a late lunch and 66 is packed. It's a choice new choice.
I opted for a tasting meal. Executive Chef Josh Eden started me off with Cold Sesame Noodles "66." The summery vermicelli was topped with a copious amount of what looked like cucumber, the traditional garnish for cold sesame noodles which in Shanghai have a much thinner sauce than the Skippy-thick glop served across the U.S. Instead, the juliennes turn out to be Granny Smith apple, a wry twist on this old dish. There are also sesame seeds; chopped scallions; whole, skinned peanuts; and a few mung bean sprouts amidst the thin yet complicated jus. It is such a light and refreshing course that one could eat three bowls and not even begin to fill up.
Next out was Egg Roll with Chinese Apricot Mustard. The thin-skinned cylinder is bias-cut in two, atop a tiny cot of raw Napa cabbage. Alongside sits a bowl of deep-orange dip that compliments the beautifully variegated interior of glistening carrots, vermicelli, top-quality shards of black mushroom, and more. The egg roll tastes like a greaseless homemade spring roll, nothing at all like the typical leaden, grease-laden, chewy-crusted, defrosted, cabbage-centric rolls known the world over.
The lunch menu offers four soups, none of which were in my tasting. It's comforting to see plain old Chicken Noodle Soup listed on such a fancy menu. The rest of the broths had a Jean-Georges spin: Lobster Wonton Soup with Celery and Chive Blossom; Hot and Sour Soup with Heart of Palm, and Sweet Corn Soup with Crab Fritter.
Scallion Pancakes, a ubiquitous Shanghai snack, are served with a traditional soy-ginger dip. They are freshly-fried, properly salty and oniony - I only wish they had the gooey, pully, middle layer achieved when egg is added to the batter. Two Flavored Stir Fried Shrimp make a beautiful red-and-white presentation. It seemed the medium shrimp are dusted with a starch powder and deep fried in a tempura-like manner. One is sauced with piquant chile and the other with mayonnaise and black sesame seeds. Despite the inherently kitsch nature of such twin-flavored dishes, the irresistible yin-yang here will keep your taste buds spinning.
Tuna tartar is certainly a surprise on a Northern Chinese bill of fare. At 66 it comes with stubs of pungent Chinese celery, gummy soy-tapioca pearls, and pureed mint leaves. It's garnished with crisp lotus root pirouettes, pretty accessories that taste like Terra Chip. Cool unctuosity defines this rich indulgence. Chef Eden explained that menu planners felt it was essential to use Long Island's world-class tuna, and that they are pleasantly surprised at the popularity of this creation.
After these starters, my belly felt full in a French, not Chinese way. This is not your average or even above-average Shanghai restaurant with heavily-sauced mounds of searing-hot, salty food banging out of the kitchen all at once.
Next came assorted Dim Sum in a bamboo steamer: Snappy shrimp were tight in the translucent packs called Har Gow - the world's number one Chinese dumpling. ("Har" means shrimp in Chinese so 66's menu entry for "Shrimp Hargow" is as redundant as the popular Italian-American dish, "Shrimp Scampi" - "scampi" is Italian for shrimp.) Liquid Chicken Dumplings turn out to be the poultry version of classic Shanghai soup dumplings, which use pork, crab, and soup INSIDE the dumpling skin. The chicken version is more flavorful than 66's crab and ginger version. Probably in deference to health concerns, neither held hotter and oilier contents like those at New York's xiao lung bao king, Joe's Shanghai on Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens.
The server I overheard earlier was right - the steamed roast pork buns were fine examples with no surprise bits of lard. Their best feature was the light, airy bread, as good as it gets.
The clear and away Dim Sum winner, though, are the Shrimp and Foie Gras Dumplings with Fresh Grapefruit Dipping Sauce. Chef Eden explained that the sauce involves quadruply-blanching the grapefruit. A small dumpling with billowy flavor, these ingenious packets taste neither like shrimp nor foie gras but; rather, a miraculous and altogether new flavor. Together with the creative and inspiringly-matched dip, the Shrimp and Foie Gras Dumplings epitomize the inventiveness of first-rate dim sum.
Steamed Cod, Carmelized Onion, Ginger and Scallion was superb, every bit of what you'd expect from one of the world's top restaurateurs. The caramelized onions look a tad gray, not golden, but they do indeed taste of caramel. The supple, sumptuous fishmeat nearly cut itself into large moist flakes. Soy-less yet gingery Shrimp Fried Rice was fully salted, and the crispy coconut shredded topping is a better additive than one might imagine. The elegant trio of ladies at the next table happily proclaimed it "greaseless." The white rice scoops at 66 are scented with Thai jasmine, perhaps a nod to the success of Vong, Jean George's demi-namesake Thai-fusion restaurant. It feels like a high grade Chinese or Japanese rice, with pure rice fragrance, would better match the sufficiently complicated tastes of 66.
I had indicated my taste for hot spicy food and sautéed Chili Prawns with Lily Bulb and Sweet Walnuts did not disappoint. There were lots of heartily flavored dried red chiles, onion strips and delightfully crisp and light curls of bright white lily bulb, which is now first appearing fresh in Chinatown markets. Lily bulbs are often unidentified in English, so look for small clear plastic bags with 4 white egg-sized balls inside. Such packets cost around $1.50 and you simply slice and quickly stir fry the bulbs.
I told the kitchen I was full but the chef wanted to show me one more course: Lobster E-Fu Noodles. Man was I happy he convinced me to taste these fresh wigglers, knife-cut daily in 66's kitchen and topped with prime hunks of lobster in the shell. The classic unevenly shaped noodles, little known to Western diners, are infused with lobster flavor. When I reheated them at home later that night, my cast-iron pan developed a gooey lobster crust that I scraped clean - they must boil the other parts of the lobster to make a reduction to flavor the noodles. This dish is the real McCoy - high end to be sure, but nonetheless a convincing Chinese masterpiece from the kitchen of Eden.
Lily bulbs, which share habitat and a similarity in taste with water chestnuts and arrowroot, reappear at dessert time in Longan tea with poached Asian pear and red papaya. The dessert menu shows that 66 knows dessert-loving Americans better than the average Chinese restaurant - there are eight other offerings, including the Chinese take on milkshakes, Tapioca and Coconut Parfait with Winter Fruits; a Crème Brulée trio; and a very U.S.-tasting Ovaltine and Milk Chocolate Pudding with Banana, Rice Crisp and Coffee Froth. There's also Frozen Mandarin Orange Segments with Candied Rinds (has the staff experimented with frozen kiwi fruit? It's gelato-like and delicious), and even a cross-cultural wonder called Almond Tofu under Orange Cannoli. Ice cream, sorbet and cookies are also available - the latter served on an elegant platter spilling out of a standard white paper Chinese takeout pail. The check arrives with yet another 66 kick, homemade green-tea-flavored fortune cookies with contemporary statements such as "It is possible that blondes also prefer gentlemen."
Drink offerings are plentiful and the fresh squeezed ginger ale with lime is mild and refreshing. A full wine selection, with bottles ranging from the teens to the $400 range, is broken down into helpful categories. Reds are trisected into smooth, bold, and spicy. Whites are listed in four categories: crisp, aromatic (dry), aromatic (off dry), and rich. The uninspired beer selection left me wondering if 66 allows the Chinese tradition of bringing your own bottle. A tart Belgian gueze lambic ale like Lindeman's Cuvée Renée 1999 would be perfect.
I selected the only rosé by the glass, a Solo Rosa 2001 Californian - it's a strong, deep rose hued wine with full body, a tart apple-like taste and funky peach undertones. The desert liquor list has many treats but surprisingly does not include any Sauternes from Bordeaux. If this fancy a restaurant was in Shanghai, it would surely continue past the XO level of cognac, climbing the grape ladder all the way to a Shanghailander's most ostentatious imbibement, Louis the XIII. Lower Manhattanite John Gotti also liked the stuff.
There is a short but quality Saké list, and fun-sounding cocktails like Shanghai Cosmo, Mother of Pearl, Fragrant Cloud and my favorite sounding multi-culti lowball, the Kumquat Mojito. Why a Hong Kong Wan Chai though, and not a Shanghai Pudong? One cocktail had a name that sent me running to food dictionaries to no avail - Peridot Pop is named after a chartreuse-colored gemstone, proving once again how 66 plays smart to its elegant clientele. We've come a long way from Trader Vic's and the Mai Tai.
Tea comes in elegant silver and white porcelain service, with offerings including jasmine, rose, green, oolong, earl grey, chamomile lavender, and mint. There are no expensive vintage teas like Pu Erh, favored in Shanghai for its grease-cutting powers. In addition, the traditional Shanghainese emphasis on vinegar is not present in TriBeCa. There is no need, as Jean Georges has fairly eliminated the oil for his diners.
Lunch dishes I'm curious to taste on a future visit include Superior Vegetable Platter, and Potato "Noodles", Radish and Peppers (they missed a fun pun when naming this dish, which could've been called "Root 66").
Dinnertime sirens for the next time include:
14. Fried Crab with Lotus Seed Crust; 63. Black Bass with Green Tea Tempura, Sweet and Sour Sauce; 64. Salmon Glazed with Kaffir and Lime; Bok Choy and Cassia; 76. Sichuan Peppered Veal Tenderloin with Gai Choy and Pickled Papaya; 78. Beef Shortribs Glazed with Red Wine and Aged Soy, Steamed Bun;
plus one other menu entry that has set my mind's eye agleam, appetizer number 12,
Lacquered Pork Belly with Shallot and Ginger Confit.
When you start with prime sauces and ingredients it's less easy to mess up. To wit, there are no blue five-liter cans of Admiration soya bean oil piled up outside this upscaler. Yes 66 is one of the world's fanciest restaurants, yet it maintains a simplicity befitting the glory of Shanghainese cuisine. There is no excess in food, ambience or presentation. 66 is a winner - it tastes as good as Armani looks.
66 is located at 241 Church Street at the corner of Leonard Street, New York City, 212-925-0202, Wheelchair accessible on Leonard Street.
Many thanks to Marc Labelle, Greg Branin, Alex Burke, Porky, Tzu-Chi Yeh and Josh Eden. Harley Spiller's tale of two weeks in Shanghai appeared in the previous issue of Flavor and Fortune, and he has also written nostalgically about one of New York's first Shanghai progenitors, the much beloved but sadly defunct Little Shanghai. Look for his follow-up report on Chinese food in Venezuela in the next issue.