Restaurant Review: East by Northeast

Modern, minimalist Chinese cuisine
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  September 16, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars

WHEN IT WORKS, IT WORKS A mustard sauce and pickled onions distinguish ExNE’s scallion pancakes, one of the hits —  though there are some misses

East by Northeast | 1128 Cambridge Street Cambridge | 617.876.0286 |  | Open Tuesday–Sunday, 5–10 PM | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Access with threshold bump
There are a lot of ways to look at Chef Phillip Tang’s mod variations on the Taiwanese-American food of his youth — Chinese tapas, small plates, locovore noodles and dumplings, tea-house nouvelle, dim sum gone upscale and gone wild. When it works, it’s the upscale Chinese cuisine I have awaited eagerly for a long time. When it doesn’t, flavors that don’t know each other can jostle and argue on the plate.

Our meal began with an amuse-bouche of creamy corn chowder with subtle bits of smoked tofu. Flavors just under the level of consciousness, adding richness without screaming out their names, are a hallmark of this kitchen. Much is done with minimalism: a short list of cocktails with numbers instead of names; stucco walls painted red and ocher, with a few wood grates instead of paintings; two wines, house red and house white; plates of peanuts ($4) or house-made pickles ($5).

The minimalist dishes work. Take those peanuts (not mine, you’ll have to order your own): per the menu, “five-spice boiled peanuts, smoked salt.” Boiled peanuts are great, but have to be served hot as a starchy vegetable. As a cold snack, these Chinafied peanuts are an excellent motivation for practice with chopsticks, but would still be better hot.

The pickles are the kind of lightly salted “quarter-sours” so many chefs are putting out, to public welcome: a strip of turnip and one of rutabaga, slices of radish, golden beet, and zucchini. Kohlrabi and carrot salad ($5) is all shreds, orange and green, in a lively dressing that doesn’t overstate sesame.

I ordered scallion pancakes ($7) and pork dumplings ($8) to see what a serious chef would do with a couple of clichéd dishes. The former was freshly fried, with a mustard sauce and pickled onions to make it different. The latter came fresher than most, with a mixture of pork and cabbage that you could taste all the way through.

A special on lamb meatballs ($11) reminded me of Chef Rene Michelena’s “MediterrAsian” cooking. The thick flat noodles were Italian, the lamb balls were simply meaty in a tomato sauce with some green beans (not Romano, not blue lake). Grilled eggplant ($7) was somewhat greasy, a kind of small eggplant steak topped with “mapo sauce” — hot pepper ground pork, with crisped rice for texture. A jumble of flavors.

Of the vegetarian small plates, the one not to miss is “Yukon gold potato fritters” ($8): ultimate tater tots with a bit of ginger in them, and a dilled tartar sauce. Sautéed Chinese broccoli ($6), usually my favorite green, was here chopped too small and sauced in too complicated a way.

An early favorite on the blogs is the “crispy pork belly, mantou bread, daikon, sweet bean paste” ($9). The bread, while thick as Turkish flatbread, has the taste of a Chinese steamed bun, so each two-bite slider is like a high-class “char siu bao” off the dim sum table.

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