At the time of writing, I feel that we are faced with two very real existential threats, two malign forces fighting it out to wrack my nights with spittle-flecked convulsions. In the yellow corner we have the potential global pandemic formerly known as the corona virus (Covid 19) and in the red, the looming threat of a crypto-marxist horde storming the gates of government in the name of change. Welcome to our Trump moment. Elsewhere, I have been reading reports that restaurant business has been flatlining in the Chinatowns of Manhattan and San Francisco as virus panic sets in. There has also been an apparent uptick in instances of racism directed at Chinese communities in Britain. Take me back to dear old Blighty etc. So, in a shameless show of fearlessness and solidarity, I decide to take myself to Kitchen 85, a relatively new sister restaurant to the much loved M&L Chinese. I also imagine that I might pick up some tips on surviving communism, if not the virus itself.
I am joined on the night by my tireless factotum and, for his debut tag-along, by my old pal Raifteirí, a compassionate capitalist, activist and eco-playboy who shares my concerns regarding the cost of magic beans. The space on Marlborough Street (a noted socialist stronghold) is functional in a wipe-down-chic kind of way and features both tables and chairs. Some tables are equipped with induction plates for the purpose of Hot Pot. I have complained both in print and corporeally about lighting levels in restaurants many times, and it has rarely been to plead for more lumens. Kitchen 85 sets a new standard. The room harnesses more white power than the current White House and more white light/heat than ever witnessed by Lou Reed. If the incandescent glare from the front window could be shifted to our island’s extremities it could ward seafaring men from Wexford’s wild Hook, round battered Skellig, before finally flashing across Fastnet. Indeed, freed from earth’s surly bonds, its light might make first contact with intelligent alien life in the darkest reaches of the cosmos. My polite request for a dimming is met with a giggle and a shake of the head.
The menu is enormous and an exercise in chaos. It’s like being pushed into an elaborate maze, blindfolded and dared to escape by scent or instinct. I have begun to wonder about such lists, about their compendious nature and what this means for the way in which we (non-Chinese) interact with them. There is a reason why lazy food writing tediously abridges the M&L, for example, as the dumpling and green beans place and it’s not because those are the best things on the menu, it has to do with menu insecurity and the tyranny of choice. ‘I’ve had those and they were good.’ Why then roll the dice on something that might be gull intestines, or mollusk adjacent? Western diners are conditioned to view vast menus with suspicion, while such lavish array of choice is perhaps differently perceived in the East. What might a western menu concision mean for a place like this I wonder? Possibly a loss of custom from those punters with ownership of the food culture. Nevertheless, behind sunglasses, we begin with the simple pleasures of roasted protein over rice. This is the meat and potatoes of the Cantonese kitchen but it’s not quite there yet. The fat beneath the duck’s skin hasn’t quite been rendered out. The exterior needs to crackle upon cutting, it just doesn’t. The same can be said for the Char Siu pork, it just feels a little flaccid, a little lacking in slippery luxury. You’ll find better for less at Duck on Fade Street.
We proceed to order too many soups, perhaps because I had already written my sign-off for this piece. The Spinach Soup displays an almost imperceptible gelatinous wobble courtesy of (one presumes) arrowroot. It is clean and green tasting. Ordering the Fish Head Soup I had imagined something resembling a pot of Quint’s chum from Jaws, set upon the stove and laced with heat and aromatics. The reality was a little more prosaic, an opaque broth with a delicate kiss of the marine about it. No actual fish heads were harmed in its construction but it’s a pleasant enough dish. Hotpot (tabletop cooking in broth) has very much been the thing in the new wave of Chinese places in New York City’s Lower East Side for some time now and it’s nice to see this Sichuanese speciality being taken seriously over here. The act of hot-potting combines the pleasure of communal cooking with the contemplative pleasures of a trip to the fishin’ hole. Go for the spiciest broth (somehow imposed upon us) option and you can add the exhilarating rush of competitive eating. The immersion of each ingredient is a literal baptism of fire. At Kitchen 85 the list of things that one might plunge into those roiling infernal depths is itself a thing of wonder. Even the most seasoned gastronaut might struggle to identify the charms of Glebionis Coronaria, Flammulina or Konjac. Maybe next time. We make do with a simple meat and fish combo, trawling for hunks of meaty bream with glass noodles on one side of the pot while swirling whorls of lamb breast with potatoes on the other. It is an extremely satisfying (and delicious) process which serves to silence a heavily perspiring Raifteirí for some 20 minutes.
There is some room for improvement here but I have little doubt that such will be the case under the steely stewardship of owner Angie Wang. We talked after dinner about some new dishes in development, like Stir-fried Garlic Stems with Pork Belly. The ambition and zeal is apparent and service is warm and enthusiastic throughout. Enjoy now before the abolition of our free market economy. Those little red books issued by the regime will not be copies of Zagat. How can our communist adventure fail when the surefire way to end inequality is to impoverish us all! We may all look forward to state run kitchens where comrades can have whatever they want. So long as it’s soup.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photo: Killian Broderick
85 Marborough St
(01) 442 7289