Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Restaurant 33: Congee Village

RESTAURANT: Congee Village
LOCATION: 100 Allen Street
DATE: June 3, 2005
FOOD: Sauteed Shrimp Ball with Walnut; Chicken w/ Black Mushroom Congee Porridge; Roast Pork Fried Rice; Chicken and Cashews; Corn and Chicken Soup; Steamed Vegetable Dumplings; Sauteed Lotus Root with Special Bean Paste Sauce.
BEVERAGE: Two Vodka Tonics; Two Blue Hawaiians; One Whiskey Sour; One Purple Haze
PRICE: $60.00

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO DANNY!

Sometimes it really does take a village. To raise a child, sure, but also to erase the past – especially when the past involves the tasteless, grease riddled, disgustingly mangled Chinese food of Charlottesville, Virginia. Spending college at the University of Virginia had many benefits – education, great people, big-time sports, beautiful countryside – but deftly prepared Chinese food was not one of them. Thank god, for Congee Village.

The Times Square of the Lower East Side, Congee Village’s entrance is illuminated by gaudy strings of multi-colored flashing lights. It might be an eyesore, if the restaurant didn’t feel so inviting and familial. The clientele is largely Chinese, which is always a good sign and the staff is friendlier than at many Chinatown haunts, even willing to explain the menu.

This was my second trip to Congee and it was in honor of Danny’s 23rd birthday. He rented out one of the backrooms, and the allure of $4 drinks and karaoke brought a large crowd of his friends. But despite the distractions of alcohol, the ridiculous costumes, and the ear-piercing renditions of “Can’t Touch This”, the food at Congee was just as incredible as I remembered it to be.

Ordering as tables, we ended up trying a bit of everything. For once, it was easy to appease Libby’s aversion to all meats save chicken and turkey, as the corn and chicken soup is perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted. The thick off-white soup has a strange, almost egg-drop soup like consistency, but a flavor that is a blissful mix of a Maryland crab cake and creamed corn. I’ve eaten this dish since childhood, but Congee’s version is superior to all others. Equally as amazing were the sautéed shrimp balls with walnuts. Huge shrimp, covered in a creamy, Hollandaise like sauce, were joined with the candied walnuts usually reserved only for desserts. Like many of Congee Village’s dishes, novel combinations of ingredients taste much better than their description might suggest. The contrast of the walnuts sweet and the shrimp’s fishy sour, worked wonderfully, and is a great introductory dish to authentic Chinese.

Of course, no visit to Congee is complete with an order of the restaurant’s namesake dish. Congee (the food) is an unsweetened porridge with the appearance of cream of wheat or grits. While it tastes like neither of these American breakfast staples, the congee’s tang is extraordinary all the same. The musky black mushrooms and weightless steamed chicken are as immersed in this Chinese stew as a 13 year old girl at a live session of “TRL”. The congee is the type of food one could eat every night and never get tired of, as there is always something unexpected to savor in the depths of the creamed rice.

The lotus root, sliced into circles and covered in a red bean paste, actually beat Kittichai’s adaptation of a similar dish – the lotus was softer, the sauce integrated completely into the root like a marinade. It was yet another example of the way Congee scoffs at Americanized-Chinese and the repellant lessening of flavors it has spawned. While Congee offers some common dishes (such as the chicken and cashews, which we ordered and was the least inspired dish of the evening), ordering such banalities is like not reading David Foster Wallace because you’re afraid his style might be too unconventional. Congee’s menu offers dishes normal for China, but unfamiliar to Americas. But when in China, or Congee in this case, do as the…

We drank our fair share as well. Perhaps it was the daiquiri like Blue Hawaiians or the Purple Haze margarita that disappeared as quickly as David Caruso’s career, but by the end of the evening, I was thoroughly knackered. Regardless, the drinks, despite being extremely inexpensive by New York standards, were surprisingly enjoyable. The whiskey sour had absolutely no resemblance to a real whiskey sour, but other than that, I was impressed by Congee’s bar.

Though it was Danny’s birthday, Congee’s food was reason enough to celebrate. Too often, in situations calling for drunken revelry and joyous embarrassment inducing spectacles, our surroundings make us self-conscious and the pleasure of the moment is lost. At Congee, we were free to act like fools while eating with the serenity of Lao-Tzu. Anytime you can leave an ethnic restaurant and say “That’s the best __________ (insert cuisine nationality here) I can remember having”, your night has certainly been a success. I’ve been to Congee Village twice. I’ve left saying it’s the greatest Chinese both times.

RATING: 8.2/10

1 comment:

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