Lower East Side’s Yunnan Kitchen Shuns Assimilation

Barely a month has passed since Erika Chou opened the buzzed-about Yunnan Kitchen, her first restaurant on the Lower East Side with chef Travis Post formerly of Bklyn Larder and Franny’s in Brooklyn. Their menu features, you guessed it, food from the Chinese province Yunnan. Inside the 60-seat Clinton Street restaurant, you can spot hipsters and neighborhood regulars alike sitting under the faux tiger skin on the wall or at the community table.

“We wanted to introduce more people to the beauty of the region and its food,” says Chou, over a steaming plate of meaty trumpet mushrooms. “Each province has its own cooking style and in New York we have a lot of Cantonese and Sichuan food.”

Heck, nearby you can get Cantonese at Congee Village or Hop Kee, and for Sichuan try Old Sichuan on Bayard Street.

Here, while they try to use as many seasonal and local ingredients as possible, the cuisine remains solely Yunnan. Says Chef Post: “These are very pure flavors, not fusion food,” says Post. “It makes me so crazy when I see harissa in Thai curry.” For Chou, who grew up in North Carolina, food played a strong roll in her childhood, which pushed her to where she is today. "Food is such a big part of my culture and my family,” she says. “I remember walking around the aquarium when I was a little girl and my mom and grandma were talking, thankfully in Chinese, about how to cook each fish.”

Before she opened Yunnan Kitchen, Chou worked at the Standard Grill, where she started as a bus girl and eventually moved up the ladder to manager. When she decided to go the restaurateur route, Chou chose the Lower East Side and the long abandoned 99-cent store to house her project. She found Post on Craigslist and opened in beginning of May this year.

Unlike San Francisco’s much lauded Mission Chinese Food, which serves "Americanized Oriental Food," Yunnan Kitchen’s mission is purity and, in that, it is Mission Accomplished.

Industry Insiders: Ben Pundole, Hospitality Sweet

Ben Pundole received an unorthodox education at The Groucho Club, London’s infamous members-only haunt. The entertainment honcho for Morgans Hotel Group opted out of a traditional university education, becoming instead the general manager of the Met Bar at the pioneering Metropolitan Hotel in London. It was there that he befriended Madonna, who later introduced him to hotel and design icon Ian Schrager. He also worked with Amy Sacco at Lot 61 in New York, then moved to Morgans to open Skybar in South Beach and the neighboring Florida Room at the Delano with Lenny Kravitz. In total, he balances his time between 14 properties. Most recently, he partnered with GoldBar mastermind Rob McKinley to construct Good Units, a raw events space under the Hudson Hotel in a former YWCA gym.

Background: I’m from London. I’ve been in the States for almost 11 and a half years now. I started off when I was 18 at The Groucho Club wheeling in wine deliveries, changing light bulbs and cleaning chef’s dirty laundry. I became a bartender and later a manager. Then, I worked at a sister restaurant, 192 in Notting Hill.

On life at The Groucho: I really had no idea what The Groucho Club was. One of my mother’s friend’s son was a chef there and got me a job. I was the lowest of the low when I started there and I loved it. I ended up not going to university because I found my location in life there. One night, Damien Hirst pulled himself over the bar and dragged me to the floor and poured tequila in my mouth. Then, he poured the rest of the bottle of tequila on my face.

On befriending Madonna: It was very, very strange and peculiar. She came into the bar one night completely unannounced. The Met Bar was small and all the tables were filled with people I just couldn’t move. I think I had Pierce Brosnan at one end and maybe Kate Moss and Jude Law and their whole crew on the other and hip people smashing around in the middle. She came in and I greeted her. I said, “Hi. I’m Ben. I’m the manager and I’m terribly sorry, I can’t give you a table right now. If you want to take a seat at the bar, I’ll make you a drink.” So, she and her friend sat at the bar and I made them drinks and I had a drink with them. She seemed to like the fact that I wasn’t just putting her in front of everybody else that was already there. Then, she came back a few times. When I was 23, she flew me out to L.A. to go and have dinner with some friends of hers. It was all fairly weird. She took a liking to me.

On meeting design heavyweight, Ian Schrager: I had a very fortuitous introduction to him by Madonna. He took me under his wing. I helped him when he was opening bars and throwing events, doing parties and promotions, marketing and whatever he needed me to do. I was his run-around kid. He’s a genius. He invented the whole way we stay these days. He left Morgans to open up the Gramercy Park Hotel. I stayed with Morgans and for the past two years, I’ve been the Vice President of Entertainment. I oversee, support, and develop partnerships, nightlife, marketing strategies, produce CDs. But I still make tea too.

On the contemporary definition of the term ‘Boutique Hotel’: Things got lost in translation. I honestly don’t think there’s a definition anymore. It’s a phrase that’s been overused, misused, and misconstrued. It certainly made sense when this type of hotel was born in the late ‘80s. It was more kind of luxury, lifestyle, and design oriented. Now, it seems like every hotel is like that. So, I don’t think there is a particular boutique market. Ian, obviously, does it very well. Andres Balazs does it well. The Thompson Group. I think Soho House does it very, very well. Although they’re slightly different.

On Good Units: It gives us real creative freedom. Usually, we build a hotel and we put the chair in place and that’s where the chair stays for years. That’s the way it goes. However, Good Units is a mobile space. It’s this 6,000 square foot space with an amazing mezzanine and a double high ceiling in the main room. It’s very much like a venue—similar to the Williamsburg Music Hall or Bowery Ballroom. Everything can be moved in and out, whether it’s the bars or the furniture. We opened with the 40th anniversary of Interview Magazine. Then, we did a great partnership with Patricia Fields and Susan Bartsch. We had an Erykah Badu performance there. We recently had a Twestival as well.

On the vices that come with a career in nightlife: In London it’s far more of a business whereas here, it’s more of a lifestyle. I think there are different levels of involvement. I think a lot of the reason that people get into nightlife and events is that they can live a certain way.

On the Florida Room: I met Lenny Kravitz when I was working at the Met Bar and I later approached him about this project. It was certainly not something I just wanted him to put his name on. He’d just started this design company, and I thought, “The last thing I want is for it to just be a bar with Lenny’s name on it.” But he was really involved with everything from the design to the glassware to uniforms to the music. If I told him I didn’t like something about the proposed design, he came to the office and defended his design or we came to a happy conclusion together. He’s a true artist. I didn’t know what Florida Room was. Lenny said that his aunt had a Florida Room. When he was growing up, it was where all the adults would go and drink and listen to music. The kids weren’t allowed in. Once he told me that, I thought it was a brilliant name.

Go-to’s: My favorite bar of all time is Hotel Delmano. I like Franny’s on Flatbush Avenue and Five Leaves. I like Soho House as well.

Where Celebs Go Out: America Ferrera, Harvey Keitel, Hope Davis

At the premiere of Our Family Wedding:

● AMERICA FERRERA – “My favorite restaurant of the moment is Broadway East, on the Lower East Side.” ● CHARLIE MURPHY – “I’ve been going to this Mexican restaurant in New Jersey. I think it’s called El Torito, whatever. That’s one of them. I go to so many restaurants. This is what I want to explain, so no one’s insulted. I’m on the road 48 weeks of the year in different towns, and I go to a lot of restaurants, so to ask me what my favorite restaurant is, is kind of a hard question to answer. I like going to Baja Fresh in L.A.” ● GRETCHEN ROSSI – “In Newport Beach, it’s Flemings. It’s a steakhouse, and I eat the steak and potatoes and everything that you can imagine on the menu. But I just eat small portions, so that you get a taste of everything.”

● LANCE GROSS – “I love Tao here in New York. I don’t get to New York a lot, but the Cafeteria. I love the Cafeteria. I do all the nightclubs. I don’t even know the names. I just go into them.” ● REGINA KING – “Right now, I’m really loving Osteria Mozza in L.A., Mario Batali’s restaurant. It’s so funny because where he opened was a place in L.A. that there’s been four restaurants that tried to make it there; came; spent a lot of money; closed down. And he has been booming, banging with business, and rightfully so. So, if you go and get the oxtail ragu — oh, my God! Hah! It is so good, and mmmm, the pizza next door is even better, because it’s Nancy Silverton from La Brea Bakery making the dough. I love to eat, clearly.” ● PRAS – “Geez! Right now it’s gotta be Dylan Prime. That’s in my neighborhood. Every time I’m out of town, I always take a trip back to Dylan. I feel like I’ve landed back home. Do you like steak? I love — I’m a big meat eater, despite all the things they tell you about eating charred beef.”

At the opening of A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway:

● HARVEY KEITEL – “A candy store in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. It was called Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves.” ● ANTHONY MACKIE – “Hey, book that is black! I love to go down to STK. One of my very favorite restaurants is Three Sisters, on Madison and 124th — the best Caribbean food you can find in New York. ● JENNIFER MORRISON – “I have had no chance to discover that yet because we just opened last night. Where in L.A.? I love Madeo restaurant. We eat there all the time. Dan Tana’s, some of the usual spots. I’m a huge fan of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s my weakness, anywhere I go.” ● ZOE KAZAN – “I love your magazine! I haven’t been going to a lot of bars or clubs lately. I’ve been going to theater hangouts, like the West Bank Cafe or Bar Centrale. In my neighborhood, I love Buttermilk Channel, which is a restaurant in Cobble Hill or Frankie’s 457. I like the fried chicken at Buttermilk Channel.” ● MARTIN MCDONAGH – “Angus McIndoe.” ● HUGH JACKMAN – “Oh, c’mon!”

● DANA IVEY – “I don’t want to give it away ’cause too many people will go there. I don’t want to say because it’ll be infiltrated by everybody, and I won’t get a seat! No, but Joe Allen’s is always good. That’s one of my faves. Oh, they have this great, great salad that I really, really like — trevisano, something, I can’t remember, but that’s what I get every time.” ● HOPE DAVIS –Buttermilk Channel in Brooklyn.” ● JOAN HAMBURG – “You mean in this neighborhood? I love to go to Orso’s. Oh, I like a lot of places. I like Blue Hill downtown. I got a list!” ● SARAH PAULSON – “One of them is a secret. I don’t want anybody else to know about it, so I won’t talk about that place. I love a place called Café Cluny, on 12th Street and West 4th Street, down in the Village. Any favorite dish? The burger and the Cluny. It’s a giant martini, which is always really good. I’m, kind of, like a person who only goes to places that are in the neighborhood I happen to be standing in, in the moment, which is what’s so great about New York — you’re bound to turn around and hit something great.” ● MARCIA GAY HARDEN – “Oh, God, we never go out. Honestly, we don’t go out. Our living room, our kitchen, our dining room. What about in L.A.? Oh, God, I wouldn’t say L.A. before New York! I couldn’t possibly say L.A. before New York. Okay, wait! We like Settepani in Harlem. We love Orso. We love Orso.” ● STACY KEACH – “It’s a tough one, isn’t it? There’s so many. Joe’s restaurant in Venice. Everything is good, but I, particularly, like steak ‘n eggs, yeah. In New York, there’s so many wonderful restaurants, and we just got here. And every time I come back to New York, I discover new places, so I’m hesitant to give you names of places.” ● PABLO SCHREIBER – “The old standards are the — what’s the place over here on 46th where we go after the show? It’s right above Joe Allen’s. Yeah, I, always forget the name of it ’cause they have no sign. [That would be Bar Centrale. -ed] That’s my favorite place for after-dinner drinks. I went to a great Greek restaurant last night, called Molyvos, on 7th Avenue between 55th and 56th. That place was pretty delicious. I had the whole fish. It was a black sea bass, and they did it perfectly. I’m a father of a 16th-month-old kid, so I don’t get out much these days.” ● DAVID HYDE PIERCE – “No, I don’t have any. I don’t have a lot of places to talk about like that.” ● LILY RABE – “I love Maialino. It’s in the Gramercy Park Hotel. It just opened. It’s amazing. Yes, it’s really good. And I love Café Cluny. Morandi. Those are my favorite places to eat. And the Breslin is also really incredible. The Breslin has this pork belly that’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten in the city.” ● JULIE TAYMORE –Craft, Maialino, Bobby Flay’s restaurant Mesa Grill.” ● TOM WAITS – “Oh, gee, I eat at home. I eat at home.” ● PAUL DANO – “Eton’s — it’s a dumpling place in Brooklyn. Po. Franny’s — all Brooklyn.” ● ANTHONY ANDERSON – “I really don’t hang out much in New York because of the work schedule that we have. But when I do, I find myself having a drink at Tillman’s. My favorite eatery would have to be Abe & Arthur’s.” ● GRIFFIN DUNNE – “I’m mostly upstate these days, so I’ve got little holes up there that I hit, in Duchess County. What do I want to plug? Gigi’s, an Italian restaurant — very, very good. I think that’s in Rhinebeck, yeah.”

Where Celebs Go Out: Harvey Keitel, Anthony Mackie, Marcia Gay Harden, Jennifer Morrison

1. Harvey Keitel at the opening of A Behanding in Sokane on Broadway: “A candy store in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. It was called Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves.” 2. Anthony Mackie: “Hey, book that is black! I love to go down to STK. One of my very favorite restaurants is Three Sisters, on Madison and 124th — the best Caribbean food you can find in New York. 3. Jennifer Morrison: “I have had no chance to discover that yet because we just opened last night. Where in L.A.? I love Medeo Restaurant. We eat there all the time. Dan Tana’s, some of the usual spots. Any favorite dishes? I’m a huge fan of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s my weakness, anywhere I go, so …”

4.Zoe Kazan: “I love your magazine! I haven’t been going to a lot of bars or clubs lately. I’ve been going to theater hangouts, like the West Bank Cafe or Bar Centrale. In my neighborhood, I love Buttermilk Chanel, which is a restaurant in Cobble Hill or Frankie’s 457. I like the fried chicken at Buttermilk Chanel.” 5. Martin McDonagh: “Angus McAndoes.” 6. Hugh Jackman: “Oh, c’mon!” 7. Dana Ivey: “I don’t want to give it away ’cause too many people will go there. I don’t want to say because it’ll be infiltrated by everybody, and I won’t get a seat! No, but Joe Allen’s is always good. That’s one of my faves. Oh, they have this great, great salad that I really, really like — trevisano, something, I can’t remember, but that’s what I get every time.” 8. Hope Davis: “Buttermilk Channel in Brooklyn.” 9. Joan Hamburg: “You mean in this neighborhood? I love to go to Orso’s. Oh, I like a lot [of places]. I like Blue Hill downtown. I got a list!” 10. Sarah Paulson: “One of them is a secret. I don’t want anybody else to know about it, so I won’t talk about that place. I love a place called Cafe Cluny, on 12th Street and West 4th Street, down in the Village. Any favorite dish? The burger and the Cluny. It’s a giant martini, which is always really good. I’m, kind of, like a person who only goes to places that are in the neighborhood I happen to be standing in, in the moment, which is what’s so great about New York — you’re bound to turn around and hit something great.” 11. Marcia Gay Harden: “Oh, God, we never go out. Honestly, we don’t go out. Our living room, our kitchen, our dining room. What about in L.A.? Oh, God, I wouldn’t say L.A. before New York! I couldn’t possibly say L.A. before New York. Okay, wait! We like Settepani in Harlem. We love Orso. We love Orso.” 12. Stacy Keech: “It’s a tough one, isn’t it? There’s so many. Joe’s restaurant in Venice [California]. Everything is good, but I, particularly, like steak ‘n eggs, yeah. In New York, there’s so many wonderful restaurants, and we just got here. And every time I come back to New York, I discover new places, so I’m hesitant to give you names of places.” 13. Pablo Schreiber: “The old standards are the — what’s the place over here on 46th where we go after the show? It’s right above Joe Allen’s. Yeah, I, always forget the name of it ’cause they have no sign. [Bar Centrale] That’s my favorite place for after-dinner drinks. I went to a great Greek restaurant last night, called Molyvos, on 7th Avenue between 55th and 56th. That place was pretty delicious. I had the whole fish. It was a black sea bass, and they did it perfectly. I’m a father of a 16th-month-old kid, so I don’t get out much these days.” 14. David Hyde Pierce: “No, I don’t have any. I don’t have a lot of places to talk about like that.” 15. Lily Rabe: “I love Maialino. It’s in the Gramercy Park Hotel. It just opened. It’s amazing. Yes, it’s really good. And I love Cafe Cluny. Morandi. Those are my favorite places to eat. And The Breslin is also really incredible. And the Breslin has this pork belly that’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten in the city.” 16. Julie Taymor: “Craft, Maialino, Bobby Flay’s restaurant, Mesa Grill.” 17. Tom Waits: “Oh, gee, I eat at home. I eat at home.” 18. Paul Dano: “Eton’s– it’s a dumpling place in Brooklyn. Po; Franny’s — all Brooklyn.” 19. Anthony Anderson: “I really don’t hang out much in New York because of the work schedule that we have. But when I do, I find myself having a drink at Tillman’s. My favorite eatery would have to be Abe & Arthur’s.” 20.Griffin Dunne: “I’m mostly upstate these days, so I’ve got little holes up there that I hit, in Duchess County. What do I want to plug? Gigi’s, an Italian restaurant — very, very good. I think that’s in Rhinebeck, yeah.”

New York: Top 10 Brooklyn Restaurants Worth the Wait

Flatbush Farm (Prospect Heights) – Everything you’d expect from a restaurant with “Farm” in the name: local, organic, sustainable. Decor is more modern than country, save for the bangin’ backyard overflowing with green. ● Vinegar Hill House (Dumbo) – Cast iron dishes, straight from the wood fire oven, are killer tasty and surprisingly affordable. Mismatched knickknacks and vintage furniture make the space a real charmer. ● Rose Water (Park Slope) – It’s not surprising that a seasonal menu helps the coop crowd get off. Park Slope’s favorite date spot comes with flickering candles and chocolate pot de crème.

Buttermilk Channel (Carroll Gardens) – Brooklyn’s M.V.P. in the fancy-fried-chicken craze serves their birds with cheddar waffles. A clean interior — large windows, industrial lighting, dark wood floors — is the epitome of Brooklyn chic. ● James (Prospect Heights) – Hidden in the first floor of a brownstone, the restaurant draws a neighborhood crowd, but the food — New American with local ingredients — is worth a commute. ● Al di Là (Park Slope) – Park Slope’s favorite Italian job comes with the longest wait. Rustic fare (pork loin scallopine, tagliatelle al ragu, roasted duck) is served in a purposefully deteriorating dining room. ● Franny’s (Prospect Heights) – Ultra-thin pizza fancied up with super fresh — and yes, you guessed it, sustainable — toppings like clams and mussels. Husband and wife owners don’t skimp on the salads or apps, either. ● Acqua Santa (Williamsburg)- The romantic, go-to spot for the more committed hipster types. Italian favorites, like spaghetti puttanesca and fettucine amatriciana, are easily paired with a bottle of vino. ● Applewood (Park Slope)- Mom and pop joint serves up responsible food in a cozy, ski-lodge setting; think fireplace, wooden tables, and flowers. The meal won’t weigh as heavily on your conscience as it will your wallet. ● The Good Fork (Red Hook)- A reason to go to Red Hook other than IKEA. This eclectic restaurant serves global bites like Korean style steak and eggs, as well as neighborhood favorites like Steve’s Key lime pie.

New York: Top 10 Comfort Food in Prospect Heights

Amorina – An authentic pizzeria known for Roman-style pies. The thin crust is perfect, and they also deliver. ● Beast – Americanized tapas bar with a diverse menu (brunch selections include chorizo hash with chipotle-spiked hollandaise) and a mellow lounge area. Reservations recommended. ● Cafe Enduro – Comfy neighborhood cantina offering pecan-encrusted trout in addition to more traditional Mexican fare.

Franny’s – Simple yet satisfying dishes all created with organic, locally grown ingredients and renewable energy — feel smug while you grub. ● James – Perfect blend of homey fare and urban flair in a cozy dining room cleverly disguised as just another Brooklyn brownstone. The creamed spinach and roasted Brussels sprouts are the stars. ● Melt – Bergen eatery with an excellent tasting menu (a Tuesday night favorite), including creative courses such as strawberry gazpacho and grass-fed beef ceviche. ● Ortine – Charming yet elegant, offers equally delicious brunches and dinners featuring scores of organic ingredients — vegetarians welcome. ● Stonehome Wine Bar and Restaurant – Exquisite seasonal menu from local and sustainable sources with divine cheese and wine lists. ● Tom’s Restaurant – A Brooklyn institution with an extensive menu and the best service in New York. Get the crab cakes Florentine with grits and a cherry lime rickey, and then go back next week and get the same thing. ● Fly Fish – Reincarnation of short-lived Whiskey Sunday pimps seafood with similar rustic vibe. Go for the catfish po boy.

New York: Top 5 Pizzerias

imageThe pizza wars in New York are legendary. Everyone thinks they have the goods on the tastiest slice in the city. Feel free to rankle amongst yourselves; here’s our top 5 picks for pizza:

1. Arturo’s (Greenwich Village) – Coal-fired, chewy-crusted, oily pies of goodness. 2. Lombardi’s (Nolita) – America’s first pizzeria. Cheese and tomatoes and more cheese. 3. Grimaldi’s (Brooklyn South) – White pizza with garlic and views of the Brooklyn Bridge. Get in line.

4. John’s Pizza (West Village) – Thin, crispy crusts, long, long lines. 5. Franny’s (Prospect Heights) – Crusty personal pizzas topped with clams and the freshest produce.