Well, I’ll be a monkey’s you know what! This LoHi noodle bar is almost everything it’s cracked up to be.
When the Director, Mantonat, Mrs. Mantonat & I arrived for dinner at 6, the casual, warmly lit little joint was already jumping. By the time we left at a quarter to 8, it was absolutely slammed; the line went out the door. As well it should. The menu is smart as hell: super-playful yet focused on the basic tenets of most Asian cooking—extreme freshness, cross-palate balance. There’s no “irreverence” without “reverence”; my own definition of “authenticity,” as I’ve said many times, hinges not strictly on tradition but on knowing the rules inside & out before opting to break them in good faith. Apparently chef-owner Tommy Lee believes as much himself.
Case in point: the steamed bao (Chinese buns).
Traditional bao are stuffed with a lot of delicious things—barbecued pork, bean paste, mixed veggies; you’ll find some of my local faves here, here & here. They do not generally contain avocado—a New World ingredient despite its adoption by Japanese sushi chefs—or breaded & fried cod, a fish whose importance to Atlantic & to some extent Mediterranean cuisines can’t be overstated, but which isn’t nearly so prevalent in East Asia.
Lee, however, has created a sort of hybrid between bao & sliders, & he gets away with it because a) the fillings are delectable—the cod firm & flaky & crunchy but not greasy, the grilled avocado almost custard-like in texture—& b) the buns themselves are beautiful, uniformly soft & silky. (I don’t know if they’re made in house or purchased, & I don’t particularly care, any more than I care that Biker Jim doesn’t make his own sausages. It’s cool when everything’s done on site, but a chef’s primary objective is to realize his or her creative vision with integrity & aplomb. Beyond that, so long as they get to point B, the route they take from point A is up to them. Sourcing’s no shame; they can’t all be churning butter & harvesting their own oysters.)
As for the beef tartare, whether or not you buy the story that it has its origins on the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes or whatever, it has a place here, in all its cubist glory.
The curious thing about tartare, to me, is its call for bold flavoring: if you season the meat delicately to let it “speak for itself,” it comes across as bland. If you go all out, the meat always seems to rise to the occasion—to see that spice & raise it. Paradoxical but true (think kitfo). Here, the use of sweet-spicy hoisin (&, I’d swear, fish sauce, though the menu doesn’t mention it) rightly highlights the bloody iron tinge of the minced beef; drag it through the sprinkling of minced garlic around the perimeter for an extra touch of pungency.
But the Dish of the Week, the one I loved most, may hew the closest to tradition: the Director’s Sichuan noodles.
Under that blanket of scallions & fried shallots are an abundance of thick, smooth, round noodles, lots of finely chopped pork & Chinese broccoli & a modicum of broth; when you mix it all up, what you’ve got is an immensely savory situation that has an almost creamy, gravy-like aspect. It’s not particularly spicy, despite the name; instead it’s memorably homey & hearty. Next time I’ll keep it all to myself.
Rather spicier was Mantonat’s kimchi stew, centered around a barely lightly egg; I only tasted the broth, but it was spot on with that sour, fiery, funky flurry of sensations.
Clearly—unlike the stereotype of its slobby namesake relative—Uncle is operating at an excitingly high level. So I’m inclined to judge it on its own terms—& therefore disinclined to give it a pass on a couple of kinks that could be easily worked out.
For example, I didn’t think my dish of rice noodles (pictured below right) was particularly well integrated; though the almost pâté-like wedges of herbed chicken sausage were killer, the charred brussels sprouts great on their own, the noodles the right texture, & the peanuts & julienned cukes a nice touch, they didn’t meld, perhaps primarily because they were dry—if there was any nuoc cham in there at all, I couldn’t tell. I ended up adding a lot of Sriracha not because the dish needed spice but because it needed moisture.
For another, the bibimbap (pictured left) was absolutely gorgeous but for one thing: because it wasn’t served in a stone bowl, it lacked the rice crust that, for me, is the cherry on top of the Korean classic. Now, according to this Saveur article, a dolsot isn’t mandatory; to return to that sticky authenticity issue, Lee’s decision not to use one is perfectly valid & by no means an indication of bad faith. It’s just: waah, no toasted rice!
Finally, while this isn’t & shouldn’t be the sort of place to stand on ceremony, ol’ Uncle probably should drag a few nieces & nephews in up the service quotient. As near as I could tell, there was only one guy working the floor the entire time we were there. And though he did an admirable job under the circumstances, the fact he was being pulled in every direction at every moment was somewhat disconcertingly obvious to all involved. Besides, with a little support he might have time for things like, say, getting to know the wine selection, especially if it’s going to include lesser-known varietals like Valdiguié—which, frankly, I’d never heard of, & I work at a wine magazine! Unfortunately, neither had he—or at least he couldn’t tell me where it was from, which a server should be able to do. To his credit, he did write the name down on a piece of paper for me (so I now realize that I actually do know the grape, by other names).
That said, I left Uncle exceedingly satisfied. It’s got gumption, pizzazz & soul in spades—& we’ve got a lot to look forward to from the young talent who runs it.