That relative conservatism is at play at the relaunched Mission Chinese, trading in beer kegs, paper dragons and a cramped, dive-punk Orchard Street basement for smart cocktails, banquet-hall booths and an ample, gleaming dining room in the far reaches of Chinatown.
That inescapable hour-long wait for a table can be spent in the downstairs bar, but the real party is upstairs—a lively hodgepodge of bespectacled food disciples and beanie-clad millennials spinning lazy Susans loaded with pork cheeks and turnip cakes while golden-age hip-hop pumps through the room. It’s a rollicking good time, sure, but a wildly inconsistent one.
I can’t stay away from Chinese food. I really love that stuff.
The Scoville-crushing chicken wings ($13) have retained their unmerciful, skin-rippling heat, but other Bowien-fan favorites have had their burners turned down: The kung pao pastrami ($14) is a flickering flame compared to the four-alarm-chili roar it once was.
The menu expands from those oldies with 30-plus new dishes, many of which show Bowien—with executive chef Angela Dimayuga—hasn’t wholly lost his edge. A tin of anchovies, served with tartine flatbread ($12.50) blistered via a wood oven inherited from former tenant Rosette, packs a power punch of pickled chili and crunchy fennel seed. It’s salty, spicy and impossible to stop picking at.
The whole-smoked pork jowl ($35) is over-the-top lardy—one bite satisfies your fat quota for the day. Better are the Jurassic salt-and-pepper lamb rib tips ($37), soft and lax on the bone. Slick a piece of flatbread with kefir crème fraîche, then pile on a few shreds of lamb and a zippy bread-and-butter pickle—it’s Mission-gone-Moroccan, and staunchly, singularly Bowien.
Point of view has never been the chef’s problem—he’s got personality in spades. But that freewheeling, dip-a-toe gumption often translates to a lack of focus. There’s simply too much going on here: a sea-urchin-stocked raw bar, a roaming prime-rib cart and, most egregiously, pizza ($14)—a soggy, passable pie added to the menu simply because of that wood oven’s existence. The old idiom applies: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.