Octopus, Brown Butter & Potato
I wasn’t expecting to stumble on such a buzzy vibe at East Village newcomer, Tuome, on such a rainy night. Chinese fusion — oh how I hate the F word — isn’t exactly in fashion. In fact, most people are wary of any fusion at all. (The mere mention often makes people cringe!) And yet, there I was filing into a packed dining room, filled with the energy of eager eaters, nibbling away on a hybrid of Chinese and New American cooking.
It’s pretty hard to reinvent the wheel nowadays, but I can’t remember the last time I lingered over a menu that featured Chicken Liver Mousse with Milk Bread, and Kabocha Squash Soup with a Crispy Frog Leg & Thai Chili Foam. There’s something compelling about this novel brand of cooking by an ambitious, young chef by the name of Thomas Chen. Take a first generation Chinese-American who ditches his accounting job, graduates from culinary school, then trains in the esteemed & avant-garde kitchen of Eleven Madison Park, and what you get is Crispy Deviled Eggs with Chili and Seared Scallops with Carrots and Foie Gras Sauce.
Chicken & Porridge
At Tuome, Chen’s serving a cuisine all his own; one that combines seasonal ingredients, like Brussels Sprouts dressed with Pork XO sauce, and Kale mingled with Chinese Sausage and Rice. That rice is bathed in duck fat, spackled with nibbles of feisty sausage and kale, then wrapped up and steamed in a banana leaf – a wholly comforting dish that reminds me of Hainanese Chicken Rice (cooked in chicken fat) except the sweetness of the duck fat makes for a beautiful contrast against the meaty, lap cheong sausage. Speaking of comfort food, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Chicken with Porridge. I was picturing a classic Chinese porridge, but what arrives is lightly battered, Fried Chicken — juicy and moist — on a pedestal of gloriously glutinous, basil-flecked rice with a side of Charred Lettuces, lending a light, textural element to an otherwise heavy plate.
One of my favorite dishes (and it seems I’m not alone) is the “Pig Out” for two. It’s actually a lot more refined than it sounds: Out from the kitchen comes two bowls of thick, homemade noodles, slathered in an addictive Peanut Sauce, alongside a platter of Berkshire Pork Belly. The pork itself is cut into bite-size pieces, each with crazy crispy skin, and accompanied by both a Sambal and Ginger sauce. Next to the pork is a refreshing Persimmon and Arugula Salad, doing wonders to offset the richness of the pork itself. You’ll notice modern and molecular influences of EMP here and there, like Octopus anointed with a subtly spicy Pork XO sauce and a foam, made from brown butter and potatoes, which is dispensed tableside by your server. But if you’re looking for something that leans a bit more greasy Chinese so to speak, try the Oxtail Spring Rolls; tightly wound cigars, filled with an unctuous, cumin-scented blend of oxtail and bone marrow. Really, the only miss we encountered were the Brussels Sprouts, which were overcooked (read shriveled).
Tuome isn’t much to look at. It’s one of those undone spaces with exposed brick walls, a few exposed pipes, Edison light bulbs and fixtures overhead, and some random window frames displayed like art on the walls. So, if you’re looking for some special occasion meal with ambience to match, this isn’t your guy. It’s all about the food, which happens to be very exciting and original. The institutions I used to frequent in Chinatown seem to have a paler shade of flavor lately. But newcomers like Redfarm and Tuome are reinvigorating the cuisine and changing the way diners see and eat Chinese. Though Chen may just be starting his career, he’s already a master at balancing flavors and textures.
Unlike most Chinese joints, Tuome happens to have a decent dessert, too. (Yes, they only offer one.) If you still have room, sample the fresh from the fryer Beignets, accompanied by a trio of condiments – Fig Jam, Goat’s Milk Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream crowned with Red Beans. While I don’t think he’s in the running for any pastry chef awards, I’d wager we’ll see his name on several Best New Restaurant and Chef nomination lists this year.