Mission Chinese seasoning chef?
As a young American who writes about food and dining in Shanghai, and who grew up with Chinese food, I was interested to try the food of Danny Bowien, a current James Beard “rising star” award nominee who’s reputedly reinventing Chinese cuisine for my generation. So on a recent trip to New York City, I stopped by his restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, an American remix of traditional Chinese dishes. The rap music was raw, the decor wild, but the food was astoundingly awful, the worst I’ve had since I gagged on that pizza with wasabi mayonnaise, shrimp tempura, and hot dogs from Pizza Hut China.
The Kung Pao Pastrami, a signature main with celery, peanuts, pastrami, and chili oil, was firebombed with sichuan peppercorns, salt, chili oil, chili bean paste, and other seasonings to the point where I wondered if it had been seasoned by a crop duster. Not particularly hot, just senseless, the culinary equivalent of a baby banging on pots and pans.
One recommended special, Hainan Eggplant, “the chef’s take on Hainan Chicken Rice”(a popular dish throughout Southeast Asia) had the chicken swapped out for eggplant. It sounded about as absurd as “Peking Kale” (who says you gotta use a duck?) but I was willing to let the flavors speak for themselves. They did not. What I got were slimy, morgue-cold blocks of inedible eggplant.
The only salvageable item proved the salt cod fried rice with Chinese sausage, basically a lackluster knockoff of Chinese salty fish fried rice, and the only item that kept me from starving to death.
I know what you’re thinking. Yeah yeah, another bitter traditionalist, a culinary cockblock refusing to acknowledge the genius of a visionary who’s gonna redefine Chinese cuisine for the new generation. Not in the least. Take David Chang, an astronomically successful Korean-American chef who’s come up with some wacky renditions of traditional dishes – fuji apple kimchi with jowl bacon WTF! But his flavors make sense in your mouth, something honed by slaving away in ramen shops and izakayas in Japan, and getting his butt kicked under Daniel Boulud. Chang would be appreciated in Asia by the cultures that influenced him while Daniel Bowien would be chased out of town by angry villagers and pelted with rotten vegetables.
Behind the ironic hairstyle, tats, and “bad boy” image, you have to know how to cook. Then again, perhaps Daniel Bowien’s success proves that you don’t.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].