Won Ton Soup and Other Essential New York Tastes, Updated at Bonnie’s
When generations of New Yorkers talked about going out for Chinese food, they were almost always talking about Cantonese food.
It was what the city’s early Chinese immigrants ate as they tried to recreate meals they once knew in the southern province of Guangdong, when it was still called Canton.
Adapted for non-Chinese palates, it was the basis of what Chinatown’s first restaurants served, starting in the 1880s, and of what later Chinese restaurants would bring to neighborhoods north of Canal Street. Cantonese food became more or less synonymous with Chinese food in New York until the 1960s and ’70s, when a handful of remarkable chefs who had made it out of Mao’s China woke the city up to the glories of Hunanese and Sichuanese cuisine.
Cooks from other provinces kept arriving. Today any moderately clued-in college student taking the bus into the city for the weekend can tell you where to find fiery lamb dumplings from Shaanxi or crossing-bridge noodles from Yunnan. Yet no other regional Chinese cuisine has burrowed its way into the city’s diet and identity more deeply than Cantonese. Without won ton soup and char siu, there is no New York.
Both items are on the menu at Bonnie’s, a new Brooklyn restaurant that bills itself as Cantonese American. The won tons are easy to spot, although they have shrunk to the size of tortellini, small enough to fit on a teaspoon. Apart from their fillings — ground meat in the Italian dumplings, ground seafood in the Chinese ones — they are not all that different, which may be the point Bonnie’s makes by calling the dish “wun tun en brodo.” The brodo is a Chinese superior stock brewed from a mix of meats and pumped up with, among other things, orange zest.
The char siu is harder to recognize. It is traveling incognito, disguised as a McRib, although this sandwich has a knife sticking out of it, as if Hercule Poirot had discovered it lying face down on the library carpet. Like the original, Bonnie’s char siu McRib comes with sweet pickles and white onions. Unlike the original, it is filled with a third of an actual baby-back rib rack, minus the bones, which are excised after the meat is steamed.
It is no great surprise that this tastes better than the pork scrapings that McDonald’s molds into an eerily soft raft. But I wasn’t prepared to find that Bonnie’s char siu glaze, with its honey, five-spice powder and ginger-garlic-soy trinity, makes perfect sense in place of the original sandwich’s sweet orange barbecue sauce, and I was even less prepared to discover that Bonnie’s McRib makes a cogent statement about the long and intertwined history of American food and Cantonese food. Even if the full vision doesn’t swing into view, the sandwich is still a lot of fun to eat.
Bonnie’s chef and owner is Calvin Eng. Raised in a Cantonese household in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, he learned the cuisine of Guangdong from his mother. (She is Mew Ha Chew; Bonnie is her American nickname.) His restaurant is not Cantonese American in the sense used to describe chop suey and other dishes that Cantonese cooks came up with to appease other people’s palates. It is Cantonese American in the sense that Mr. Eng himself is.
His family’s culture is the foundation of his menu, but he allows it to be pushed and pulled by the world he moved through outside his home, like meals at McDonald’s, his years at culinary school in Rhode Island, and his time as the chef of Nom Wah, the century-old Cantonese tea parlor on Doyers Street.
Like many young chefs these days, Mr. Eng used pop-ups to build a devoted fan base before setting up a place of his own on Manhattan Avenue in Williamsburg. In fact, when he got tired of waiting for the gas at Bonnie’s to be hooked up, he put on a “no-gas pop up,” giving followers a preview of his raw oysters in a mignonette of raw ginger and white pepper, among other items.
As a result, the dining room, styled like a vintage luncheonette with tiled floors and hanging globe lights, has been full almost every night since the official opening in early December. Reservations vanish faster than you can swallow a ginger-slicked oyster, and if you hope to get one of the six stainless-steel counter stools set aside for walk-ins, you’d better be in line before the front door — painted with an impressively coordinated dragon eating noodles with his front paws while pouring tea with his hind legs — is unlocked at 5 p.m.
Before long the whole place will be in motion. Bartenders will be racing to keep up with orders of pineapple-tinged Negronis and black-tea Penicillins. Flames under the woks will roar to life. Their heat will blister the skins on long beans cooked in butter that teems with golden bits of garlic. It will weld XO sauce, intensely flavorful from chopped dried scallops and shrimp, to the surface of coiled cheung fun noodles. It will crisp the dredged pieces of salt-and-pepper squid as they stir-fry with onions and green chiles. (These are served with a lemon cheek and a garlic chive-laden dip the menu calls “Chinese ranch.”)
Bonnie’s even uses the wok for cacio e pepe. A fever for this pasta has gripped New York’s kitchens for the past few years; Mr. Eng may have come up with the most compelling of all the nontraditional versions by stir-frying the nearly cooked noodles in a compound butter of garlic and fermented tofu.
That is about as far as Mr. Eng strays from recognizably Cantonese inspiration. More often he boosts the flavors of homey vintage recipes so they’ll register with diners who were weaned on Mission Chinese and various Momofukus and now expect to find a depth charge of umami on the end of every chopstick.
A shallow bowl of steamed egg custard, normally a quiet affair, is loaded with clams in salty fermented black-bean sauce. Jasmine rice congee is powerfully savory even before you stir in the sliced scallions, powdered scallions and peanuts and mossy threads of pork floss; the dish is like a minivan with a Ferrari engine.
The kitchen rarely goes wrong, but at times it can punch the accelerator too hard. The cheung fun noodles that were thrilling one night were overloaded with XO sauce the next. My guess is this issue will get ironed out with time, as the cooks zero in on the balance and proportion at the heart of Cantonese cuisine.
Bonnie’s version of cold poached chicken hits the target: The ginger-scallion-chile sauce sings, sweetened soy sauce provides a vigorous counterpoint and blue-and-white porcelain teacups filled with golden chicken broth underscore the one-pot simplicity of the dish.
Anyone wanting a more elaborate main course should consider the rainbow trout. Inside its lightly fried skin the flesh has been minced with shrimp and molded back into its original form: a fish-shaped fish cake. Bouncy and springy, sharp with minced garlic chives, it is punctuated here and there with crisp bits of water chestnut. You can eat this as is and be quite happy, but it’s improved by wrapping a slice in butter lettuce with a few leaves of herb salad and a smear of green mustard.
For dessert there is, of course, a sundae. This one comes by way of Hong Kong, the vanilla ice cream garnished with little bricks of fried malted-milk custard and covered with Ovaltine hot fudge. But at this point in the meal, my thoughts always turn to Bonnie’s fruit plate, a seasonal spread that lately has brought clementines, dragon fruit speckled with black seeds, rambutan peeking out from inside its hairy rind, elongated purple grapes, maybe a ripe wedge or two of pumpkin-orange fuyu persimmon. These aren’t named on the menu, where the description merely reads, “health is wealth!!”
To italicize the point, perhaps, the fruit plate is a dollar cheaper than the ice cream.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.