Downstairs is a blogger, as a matter of fact every time you see a little improvement on Augieland it is because she has helped. She also loves to eat, which is probably what brought us so close to begin with. Being a blogger and a foodie, Downstairs has ended up in the enviable to some position of editing the food section of a rather well respected blog here in Gotham. Every now and then this gets her invited to a press event and sometimes, if I haven’t recently berated her for some ill-conceived notion about goat cheese or tannin in red wine, she is kind enough to bring me along.
The most recent of these outings was at a place called Xing. Xing is in Hell’s Kitchen but the décor is definitely born of the new genesis of Clinton. The front room features bright bands of green, blue, and yellow plastics, all back-lit and glowing to different degrees depending on how close you get to the light source. It ends up feeling like a person who had a summer job at one of the plastics shops on Canal Street was given their first design contract and decided to reinvent the candy shell red Chinese restaurants of 40’s L.A. Our fictional designer was clearly on a tight budget so the Formica on the booths buckles a little and the strips of colored hard plastic aren’t absolutely flush in the bar, but on the whole it is clear that there is talent and that every possible bit of funding and drive was committed to creating an ambiance.
The chef at Xing is Lulzim Rexhepi. This event basically being a food junket, Mr. Rexhepi was brought out at the end of our dining to meet us. He seemed a nice man, on the quiet side and less than ecstatic to be out of the kitchen, though once we started discussing his food with him he displayed a definite confidence and pride in his method; all consistent with the pattern of traits I have come to expect in talented chefs.
A special menu including cocktails was prepared for this introduction to Xing. First, I will praise Xing for only having two cocktails that ended in “-ini.” Then, I must smack them for having two cocktails that end in “–ini.” Why go through the effort of taking the grenadine out of an Alabama Slammer, adding a little pineapple and calling it a Rickshaw just to call Grey Goose and sake a Saketini? And while we are at it, why brand the vodka and not the sake?
As for the food, Xing claims it is making Southeast Asian cuisine, and I can pretty confidently say you won’t find food like this in Southeast Asia, unless of course you are in a Western hotel that caters to ex-pats pretending they are enjoying the Far East. The first clue is the plating. Chef Rexhepi has a real gift for presentation and the food is plated as french nouvelle cuisine would be. The second is the ingredients, foie gras, black truffle, and donuts are certainly neither indigenous nor even findable outside these luxury establishments.
What Chef Rexhepi is really doing at Xing is reinterpreting the foods Americans consider Chinese, and in some cases Japanese or Thai. This reinterpretation is very well executed and, in a sea of mundane General Tso’s chickens and spare ribs from a foil bag, fills a huge hole that needed filling. Rexhepi’s confident hand, mingles the familiar flavors of the Asian cuisines to be found around town with some of the ingriedients to be found in fine dining around the world and they deepen quite nicely. Rather than ending up with sweet, non-offensive, non-descript food that people can pretend is kosher on Sundays; these familiar ingredients come together to become dishes with integrity.
It all started with an Amuse Bouche, Miyagi Oysters with Swatow mignonette. I believe the Swatow here refers to the Chinese restaurant in Boston, if not, the one in Toronto, but either way it is a North American place and not Southeast Asian. The dish was a simple oyster with vinegar dressing, served on a Chinese soupspoon.
From the First Course options we chose: Sliced Hamachi, mandarin & sweet chili sauce, and Wok Fried Foie Gras, blueberry and lemongrass compote. The sliced hamachi was raw in a simple salad with the sauce decorating the plate. The foie was a napoleon with wilted, sliced lemongrass in its composition and, again, the sauces used as color on the plate. Both dishes made much more sense once you committed to plundering Chef Rexhepi’s beautiful art and brought the ingredients together with their condiments.
As Second courses we chose: Szchuan Pepper Crusted Scallop, miso butter bath, roasted wild mushrooms, pea shoots, and Chinese BBQ Spare Ribs. The Scallop was prepared well but the sauce seemed to lose the sweetness of the miso and pea shoots to the earthiness of the mushrooms, and vice versa. The ribs, however, were genius. Without straying too far from the sweetish BBQ sauce of your local Chinese takeout place, the chef has greatly improved the dish by incorporating hot Chinese mustard in the sauce. Not added later as a layer, the bite of these ribs was in the little sting of heat slow-roasted in with the sauce.
For our third course we had: Black Truffle and Galangal Crusted Black Cod, wok fried gailon, lotus chips, and Seared Tuna, grape tomato and kaffir lime leaf relish, shanghai shoots. Frying the batter on the cod lost the aroma of truffle for the sable fish, rendering it not that discernable from any other white-fleshed fish, but I was glad to see that they went with an eco-friendly choice like sable fish (black cod) for this one. The tuna, a horrible eco choice, was a square cut of the loin crusted in what I suspect was semolina and simply dressed with a citrus dressing and grape tomatoes. It was as nice a salad as the other thousand seared tuna salads to be found out there, better than most of its Caesar brethren.
To wind it all up, we had 5 Spice Donuts with strawberry dipping sauce. Nicely presented tumbling out of a white paper Chinese takeout box, they were warm and pleasant. I wonder if they will be better when strawberries are in season and stand more of a chance against the flavors of the 5 spices.
Ok, so this was all free and prepared knowing at least one of the people at my table was going to write about it, so how does that skew my perception? I’ll never know. I will say I enjoyed the ideas, if not all the dishes, and the ribs really were good. When I ask myself under what circumstances would I enjoy going back to Xing, I hearken back to my dating days. If I were 22-27 again, trying to find a cool place, with decent food, that would not rape my wallet to impress a semi-important date, I would be glad to know Xing was out there.