The website for Cherrywood Kitchen features prominently the words “Cherrywood Kitchen by Chef Chris Cheung”.
We’ve certainly come a long way. There once was a time when eaters discriminated at chefs with unforgiving stereotypes. Sushi chefs need to be Japanese, Italian chefs from Italy, etc. The assumption was that chefs that were not of the proper ethnicity lacked understanding or respect for the cuisine, thus am unable to create the intricate flavors. That might have been the case then, but today aspiring young chefs spend years training their craft in various ethnic cuisines, so it’s not uncommon to see a master sushi chef from China as in the case at Neta.
New American cooking, though, is harder to define. If traditional American cooking evokes the image of burgers, steaks and fries, New American cuisine is…. just about everything else, with hints of just about every other cuisine. The flavor profile however is still decidedly from the western hemisphere.
With a resume that includes stints at Jean-Georges and Nobu, chef Cheung had the necessary training to carve out his own interpretation of New American. The concept of the restaurant is quite generic (by modern day NY standards): Fresh local produce, seasonal ingredients, etc. The unifying element is the cherrywood, which is used to smoke many ingredients in house, and is the dominating color and texture in the restaurant.
What caught my eye early is the Menu Mission Statement - Seafood sourced from the live tanks in Chinatown. It’s one thing to be proud of your heritage, but I’m not sure this is the local statement diners are looking for. Personally I’d much prefer to hear that my fish came from the New Fulton Fish Market. (In some cases, especially Chinese cooking with the whole head on, I appreciate a live fish. If the fish is being filleted, the difference is minimal)
Appetizers were simple and fairly well executed. Smoked asparagus was very tender, though the thick(er) cut serano ham overpowered the subtle smoked flavors. The special of the day, a monk fish liver pate didn’t have as much flavor I was expecting, and was a bit too much on the sweet side.
Unsurprisingly, with the more elaborate cooked entrees, the Chinese influence showed up. In the “Market Fish”, bits of Chinese bacon lent to the sweetness of the broth. The freshness of the mussels were disappointing, which gave the abalone broth a slightly pungent taste. Sadly that’s the thing about mussels, any imperfections really shows up to haunt the dish.
I never thought I’d be one to complain about too much soft shell crab, but there was too much soft shell crab. The seasoning and breading was also much too heavy. I was enjoying the lighter flavored artichokes, which for me out-shined the crabs.
If the entrees sneaked in some Chinese elements, on dessert they were on full display. Sesame ball filled with chocolate came labeled as a fritter with the Valrhona Chocolate, but the Caramelized Banana almost made it feel like 3 separate desserts forced together.
Coffee and tea ice cream on its own would have been fine. Yet Chef Cheung threw on some sweet Chinese pastry balls. I loved these “little buns” as snacks growing up for their sweet milky flavor. Problem is, ice cream is all about sweet milky flavor. Eaten together what you’re left with is a dry crumbly ball of flour, not the most pleasant texture.
I’m all for supporting the integration of flavors and techniques, but only when it made sense. I feel that many of the dishes at Cherrywood were sound in execution but had elements of Chinese cooking forced upon it. Perhaps then it would only be fitting to close the piece with a Chinese proverb. “Two men were in a contest on who could draw the best calligraphy snake. The first men was so skilled that he finished with time to spare, so that he drew some legs. He lost to the man who just drew a snake… with no legs.”
Was the article better until I forced upon you this proverb? You can be the judge of that.
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Note: The meal was complimentary, though it did not affect my opinion, nor was I obligated to write.
300 Spring St
New York, NY 10013