I came home from my consort’s birthday dinner at Fung Tu on the Lower East Side determined not to Tweet but to think things through rather than squandering good ideas in 140 characters. More than two weeks have gone by, so here I am to say it was actually a thrill to realize we could walk out of a restaurant and get lost, after going on 34 years in Manhattan. We had walked south to the end of Orchard Street and turned right and found ourselves completely disoriented — why were we walking toward the Williamsburg Bridge if we were heading west? (Answer: We had never been that far east on Canal before; we both thought it ended around the Bowery.)
I also have to report that it took two and a half hours online to find a restaurant that could even let our credit cards in on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. What the hell ever happened to the city emptying out on long holidays? I realize it’s the tourists flooding in who are clogging the system, but some part of me also wonders if a lot of restaurants were “fully committed” just for appearance’s sake. We walked past one that had had only 5 and 5:30 openings online that was nearly empty around 9.
And I got our table through Fung Tu’s website, which uses not OpenTable but Yelp for reservations and offered a genius option: If anything opened up the next day, it would text me with 15 minutes to text back whether I was in. So we got our 7 o’clock seating (we’re olds), and both the automated system and an actual human checked back twice to confirm as the hour of the olds approached.
As for the meal, the whole experience seemed influenced by what I suspect is the Keller Effect. The chef, and I assume others, had worked at Per Se, so the staff was solicitous, the noise level serene, the seating comfortable despite the tight quarters, the bathroom tile artfully designed. When the waiter delivered fried clams we hadn’t ordered, another server insisted we keep them (and they were worth spending money on, tender-crisp with a lively dipping sauce).
We started with something even more sensational: dates stuffed with shredded duck, smoked and then fried. Our next shared small plate was good but odd, a fava bean curd terrine, sprinkled with pickled mustard greens and bits of bacon, and the one after that was too similar in texture. I liked the scallion masa pancake more than Bob did, even though it came with my favorite bird (chicken). But the last dish was spectacular: spaetzl with Sichuan ground pork, the spicy meat the perfect contrast to the soft noodlettes. We were also glad the waitress persuaded us to add a side of water spinach cooked in whey broth; the whole dish was elevated to something so much more. Plus the $22 portion was big enough to kittybag; we split it for lunch a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely, not least because the tab before tip was $138 for all that food plus a bottle and two glasses of anything-but Chardonnay wine.
And given that I’m in birthday mode, I’m going to confess it’s only been a year and a half since we had a fabulous evening at Lafayette for mine in 2014 that I never got around to writing about here (quiet table in the corner in the front; fine pumpkin risotto with duck confit and chestnuts). And it’s only a year since we celebrated Bob’s at the Gander (his request is always for interesting food, what he won’t get at home because this trained cook is basically unambitious). Underlines on the dusty menu on my desk indicate we had brisket “tots” (tater, not kiddle) with mustard (strands caught in my cranial sieve indicate they were almost too meaty), and brown butter panzotti with taleggio, chanterelles, ramps and Parmesan (not a shopping list but actual flavor-texture coherence) and arctic char with coco beans, chorizo, leeks and beurre rouge (good but unfortunately too close to the kitchen where I do the chopping and dishwashing). I do recall we ate in a luxurious booth and the sommelier became our friend once we ordered a cheap but interesting white; I think he said you could judge his list by the fact that it took two months for any customer to ask for pinot grigio. WIGB to either, though? Haven’t yet.