Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hung Ry: The Gentrification of Hand-Pulled Noodles

Chinese culture dates back thousands of years, and similarly, its food has evolved and expanded over that incredible amount of time. It could take an eternity to sample and truly understand all the nuances of this vast (and delicious) cuisine. So it takes some major cojones for a gwai lo to open a new restaurant that features hand-pulled noodles, a specialty of Lanzhou. Yet that's exactly what Amadeus Bogner did when he opened Hung Ry last fall. Surprisingly, the restaurant has quickly won over the hearts (and stomachs) of both critics and New Yorkers alike. Together with former Cru chef Michael Hodgkins, they embarked on a tour of Chinatown's hand-pulled noodle joints before putting an ad in a local newspaper "seeking master hand-pulled noodle maker," and eventually hired two: Tho, who works days, and Chen, who works nights. Despite some enthusiastic Yelp reviews and four stars from NY Mag's the Robs, I still wasn't fully convinced that these highfalutin noodles were any better than the comparatively lowbrow versions served at the likes of Super Taste and Sheng Wang on Eldridge. Two visits in and I'm still undecided. While Hung Ry's upside (eat your heart out Jay Bilas) is certainly higher than anything found in Chinatown, that doesn't necessarily guarantee better results.

I usually like to wait a bit longer before posting about a restaurant that I've recently just visited, but in Hung Ry's case I've inadvertently already been twice. On my initial visit, I was joined only by my friend ESC and sat at the bar. Most recently, I was joined by six other friends and dined at a table. Both times, as I walked to the restaurant, I couldn't help but notice the stark difference between the hip boutiques on Bond street versus the rundown storefronts of Eldridge. Some have described Hung Ry's interior as, "salvage-chic" and being decked out in "scavenger-chic décor," with one thing being definitely apparent (besides the chronic use of the word "chic"), Hung Ry falls squarely into the trendy mold of its NoHo surroundings, bucking the grimy aesthetic of the Chinatown noodle houses.

Enough already about Hung Ry's interior, this blog is called Law & Food, not Law & Interior Decorating. One point of interest, in comparison to its stripped down peers, Hung Ry features a small, but diverse selection of beers and wines. Additionally, the restaurant also offers an array of small, but beautifully plated appetizers courtesy of Chef Hodgkins, many of which I was able to sample over the course of my two visits. On both occasions we ordered the Monkfish Liver with Logan Berry and Hen of the Woods. A monkfish liver torchon was plated alongside a few loganberries and caramelized hen of the woods mushrooms. The liver was smooth and creamy, mimicking foie gras. Between the two accompaniments, I much preferred the smokey mushrooms to the sweet loganberries.

The other appetizer I've had on both occasions was the Squid with Guajillo and Pumpkin Seeds. Of all the restaurant's appetizers, this very well may be Hung Ry's best, and most popular. A heaping mound of perfectly fried squid was sprinkled with nutty pepitas and tasted great with the slightly smokey guajillo paste that came painted on the bottom of the plate. Unlike most fried squid, this was delicately battered and not the least bit greasy, allowing the pure squid flavor to come forward.

The Veal Head Terrine with Celery Root and Peanuts was OK, reminding me of a more refined version of something you'd expect to find from a Chinese restaurant such as M&T. The terrine looked nice, but lacked the depth of flavor I had been hoping for, ultimately disappointing.

On the other hand, the Beef Tongue with Black Beans, Carrot and Pickled Aromatic Broth  impressed everyone. Three thick slices of tongue sat in a shallow pool of dark broth with black beans and some carrots. There was little debate that the tongue was expertly prepared, moist and redolent of the lightly seasoned broth, while the black beans provided a nice dose of salinity, while the carrots added some sweetness.

Rounding out the appetizers from my second visit was the Short Rib with Daikon and Shiso. A braised short rib was covered with a miso foam and a few chunks of soft daikon radish. The short rib was superbly tender and contained a robust meaty flavor which was nicely counterbalanced by the herbaceous shiso.

But all the appetizers were merely a prelude to the main event: the hand-pulled noodles. Seated at the bar on my first visit, ESC and I enjoyed front row seats to Chef Chen's noodle pulling demonstration. Pulled to order, diners have their selection of either thick or thin noodles, with the overwhelming consensus preferring the thick variety.

On my first trip, I tried the Oxtail, Beef Cheek, Turnips and Black Currants with thin noodles. The soup was rich without being overly oily, but was a bit too aggressively seasoned on my subsequent visit. Meanwhile, the thin noodles were disappointing to say the least. Having no discernible bite and being a bit soggy, it was pretty inexcusable for a noodle joint. The soup contained a good amount of oxtail and beef cheek but the limp noodles made the dish underwhelming.

By contrast, the Duck Breast with Gizzard, Szechuan and Kaboucha Squash with thick noodles was much better on both trips. Whereas the oxtail soup was rich and meaty, the duck soup was much more delicate and tasted faintly of szechuan peppercorn and star anise. Three slabs of medium rare duck breast were prominently displayed, resting on top of the noodles and contained a faint flavor of Chinese five spice and star anise. The "thick" noodles weren't actually that thick at all, and seemed a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps, "thicker" noodles would be a more appropriate description? Regardless, the thicker noodles were far and away better than the thinner variety, having a much better texture that stood up to the soup. Interspersed throughout the bowl were slightly chewy gizzards and thin strips of sweet squash.

Noah ordered the Pork Belly with Tongue, Brussels Sprouts and Roasted Radishes with thick noodles and generally seemed pleased. I tried the broth which had a strong smoke flavor and the pork belly and tongue were practically melting, they were so soft.

Our mutual friend, AM, was the only person to order the Veal Cheek with Liver, Marrow, Wax Beans and Almonds. I was able to try a piece of the veal cheek which came sliced on the bias and was pleased. Bits of marrow bobbed throughout the soup like fluffy gnocchi, only made from pure fat instead of potatoes.

With their prices triple (not justifiable even if they use organic flour) that of more authentic versions further downtown, I'm not sure I'll be rushing back to Hung Ry anytime soon. While the restaurant offers alcohol, a variety of well executed appetizers and their soups won't leave you with a MSG hangover, I can't help but feel that Hung Ry misses the boat on the most vital aspect of any self-respecting noodle shop: good noodles. While not all negative, whether I end up on Bond or Eldrige street will probably hinge on who I'm with, and what I want. Craving a decent alternative to the horrific waits at Ippudo, I'll likely stop by, but if I'm craving a no-frills, but otherwise good bowl of noodles, I'll be sure to skip Bleeker and take the 6 down to Canal.

Hung Ry
55 Bond Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 677-4864

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Hung-Ry on Urbanspoon

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