Danny Bowien has gone normcore. Since shuttering his kaleidoscopic Szechuan clubhouse Mission Chinese Food in November 2013 due to Department of Buildings violations, the James Beard Award–winning wunderkind has become a father, sheared his trademark Fabio-blond locks and opened a bland Mexican offshoot, Mission Cantina, to middling reviews.
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.
On Christmas, my family and I see a movie and go out for Chinese food. We dont celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense, in that we do not actually celebrate Christmas.
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.
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 urge for Chinese food is always unpredictable: famous for no occasion, standard fare for no holiday, and the constant as to demand is either whim, the needy plebiscite of instantly famished drunks, or pregnancy.
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.