I found a piece of my own Shangrila in Soho's critically acclaimed Yunnan Kitchen.
The menu is comprised of four deceptively simple categories - Cold, Hot, Shao Kao, Rice & Noodles - this kitchen seems just that, a kitchen. Walking from outside, you can admire its craftsmanship with 5-6 sweaty chefs squeezed in a little hole-in-the-wall. I kept on taking pictures inches beside them at the sidewalk separated by glass. I'm sure at least one of them (hopefully not the head chef Travis Post) was very annoyed.
Chefs wokking away
Usually New York Magazine's harsh food critics rarely dishes out four stars, the most being two stars, and that's got to be something really good. But for some reason unknown to mankind, they awarded the Yunnan Kitchen four.
It's a rather nondescript place, with a 60-people seating capacity. But its got some real hype. Perhaps because of the raving critics, this place was packed on a Thursday night. We had to wait 20 min to get a two-people seat.
The decor is tastefully decorated with authentic headpieces of the Miao ethnic group, and a fabric tiger skin (boo...get the real thing!)
Miao Ethnic Headpiece and Paper Tiger
The seats were literally coffee tables, so that only small plates could fit onto it without tipping over the candle (our waitress almost did that >< ). Actually, the real reason for the small plates is so that you can order more to share with your friends.
I was starving when we got there, and couldn't wait to dig in. We ordered some nice Pu'er Poe out of their wide array of teas. It came with a dark yet mellow flavor. The taste was bold, with some hints of flower essence.
We ordered the Tofu Ribbon Salad, Wood Ear Mushroom, Lamb Meatballs (since I am half-Muslim), and Chinese Sausage Fried Rice.
The orders actually came pretty fast - three at a time to be exact. Perhaps because of the small menu, the chefs had already whipped up some of the more popular dishes (which is why when I open up my own restaurant, I'll only have a special-of-the-day and nothing else =).
I tried the wood-ear mushrooms first, which was a very good decision because you need to start with a refresher. The celery was crisp, and the mushrooms were tender. I'm sure they get their produce from the freshest places, because wood-ear can be pretty dry if you get the Chinatown ones that come in a bag. Then I ate one of those onion-looking things - lily bulbs they are called - and it was mind-boggling. With the texture of sweet baby corn and the appearance of a small onion, these things were amazing! The only thing I didn't like about this dish was the gingko, because it has a bitter aftertaste. But we (by we I really mean I) cleaned up this dish, which is probably why the couple next to us ordered one too.
Then I wandered into the authentic world of Yunnan cuisine with the Tofu Ribbon Salad. For someone who can't take an ounce of super-spicy food, I really enjoyed this dish. It was light, refreshing, and didn't feel like you needed three gulps of water per bite of tofu. The onions were sweet and crunchy, contrasting the spicy and softness of the tofu.
The lamb meatballs are exactly as New York Magazine had described - some of the juiciest, tenderest meat around. Although I would have liked mine cooked a little more (I cringe at the sight of pinkish meat), these were way better than the street grub halal kabobs. And it was delicately spiced so as to not overwhelm the palates. The spices were strong enough to make the point, yet subtle enough to hide any spicy aftertaste.
Chinese Sausage Fried Rice
My least favorite dish of the night was the Chinese Sausage Fried Rice. Unfortunately I'm not a big fan of sausage, although I'm sure this one is gourmet to the max. The rice was way too oily for my liking. I would have rather tried the cold noodles that the couple next to us got, which looked pretty good.
We cleared all our plates, which is a pretty good accomplishment considering I eat like a pigeon. I owe it to the small portion-control plates (but unfortunately I still gained one pound the next day =(
The dishes were cooked to retain the original flavor of each ingredient as much as possible, which I really liked, yet the spices and seasoning kicked it up a notch. The price is extremely reasonable given the exceptional level of cooking. I gained a lot of in my culinary training from this outing!
To finish off, they give everyone a complimentary lemony zesty cookies. I'm not sure if that is part of authentic Yunnan cuisine, but it was amazing! The darkness of the Pu-er complimented the sweet, crunchy cookie nicely. Wish I had more of them!
Next time I'd like to try the Charred Eggplant with sawtooth herb (what is that?) and crushed peanuts, Scrambled Eggs with jasmine flowers (interesting combination...perhaps the Chinese version of dandelion salad), and the Ham Rice Cake. Actually, I'd like to try them all!
Kids-not-friendly - hard to get a seat even if you are an adult!