East by Northeast

>>  Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I really wanted to love this place.  I really did.

East by Northeast is an Asian-inspired restaurant with a tapas-style concept. Chef Phillip Tang, the brains behind this new venture, is a 27-year old chef trained in Taiwan and throughout Boston at various establishments including Hungry Mother, T.W. Food, and Lumiere. There's already quite a hype. In fact, the Boston Globe calls his new venture "Momofuku-esque," suggesting that it is the closest thing Boston has to David Chang's culinary style.
Bun du Riz

Bun du Riz from Ma Peche (Momofuku Midtown) in New York

I love Taiwanese food, and I really enjoyed Ma Peche in midtown.  But the clincher that made me super excited? Chinese handmade noodles.*

In fact, the moment I found out it was open, I literally dropped what I was doing and headed straight out to Inman Square to try this place.  On a Tuesday night at 7:30pm, we were able to land a table with no problem.  By 8pm though, all the seats were essentially full.

The menu consists only of small plates.  The chef encourages diners to order 3-4 dishes each and share family-style.  The food is served "Japanese-style," which apparently means the food comes out the moment it's done cooking.  There aren't too many items on the menu right now.  In fact, after ordering 8 dishes (4 each), it feels like we have ordered more than half the menu items.
Curried Carrot chips
Curry Dusted Carrot Chips - $4

Our starter "snack," the curry dusted carrot chips, are delicious.  The curry adds a unique twist to the chips.  They remind me of Terra Taro Chips, but freshly made. We gobble these right up.
Pickled vegetables
Pickled Vegetables (Daikon, Rutabaga, Beets) - $5

A trio of pickled daikon, rutabaga, and beets comes next.  It's OK, although not particularly exciting. I personally think the vegetables are too astringent, and I nearly cough more than once when I accidentally inhale too much vinegar. I typically like pickled vegetables, but I like them just a bit sweeter and less sour.  I prefer Chinese "pao tsai" (picked cabbage).  I think I even prefer regular Korean kimchi more, mostly because it has a much more complex flavor profile.
sauteed kale
Sauteed kale with lemon, garlic, and spiced rutabaga relish

I appreciate Phillip Tang's focus on local produce. A twist on a typical Chinese leafy greens, Tang stir-fries kale with plenty of garlic, lemon, and rutabaga relish. The spiced rutabaga relish and garlic give the dish a deep, rich flavor that's quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the kale is a bit tough (not tender), and the dish is borderline too oily for me.  Over all, though, the flavors work in this dish and it has potential to be quite good once the kinks are ironed out.
Man tou Pork belly buns
Crispy Pork belly (daikon, Man Tou bread, sweet bean paste) - $10

Pork belly seems to be all the craze right now.  Of course this dish will remind diners of David Chang's famous pork belly buns.  I've never had the Momofuku version, but I've had the authentic Chinese version at Shangri-la (made with mustard greens, pork belly, peanut powder, and hoisin sauce). Tang's version is pretty tasty, although Bryan thought it tasted sharp and less complex compared to other pork belly dishes he's tried. The pickled daikon is really tart, the pork belly richly fragrant, and the bean paste sweet.  Yet for some reason the flavors did not meld together in a synergistic way.  It's not bad, but there's room for improvement.  Bryan did comment that the texture of the bun ("mantou") was excellent.  Mine was a tad dry, but over all the dish is enjoyable.
Pork & butternut squash dumplings
Pork dumplings with butternut squash, five spice - pork jus - $10

I love the hand-rolled skins on these dumplings.  Really, I don't think I've had such good dumplings skins since Din Tai Fung. It's super fun to chew on.  Having said that, the flavor of the dumpling is a bit weird, and I'm not sure if I love it. The sweet butternut squash seems to overpower the pork, without enough pork umami to balance it out.  But again, we may be biased with preconceptions of what a perfect dumpling should taste like.  I think some people would like it.
Beef noodle soup
Home Made Thick Cut Noodles with beef shank, celery root, parsnip, spicy beef broth - $10

Yum - thick cut noodles.  The noodles are definitely homemade.  I wish they were a tad chewier, but I'm just happy they are homemade.  The beef shank is tender and the soup broth is enjoyably spicy.  We both thought the broth lacked a certain depth that usually comes with beef noodle soup.  Perhaps it's the lack of MSG, or maybe his soups are not stewed for as many hours, or maybe he was aiming for a lighter broth.  I think the addition of the sweet-tasting parsnips also cuts the richness of the soup.  Over all, this dish was pretty good, but I've had better beef noodle soups in Boston.
shrimp dumpling
Shrimp dumplings with ginger, cilantro, and green sauce - $10

This is my favorite main dish.  The same gloriously-chewy-but-thin-hand-made dumpling skin contains a delicious shrimp filling bursting with flavors of ginger and cilantro.  Perhaps I like this one more because it's less "fusion-esque" and incorporates more traditional flavors.  I'm not sure of the reason, but I happily chew on this one, savoring the lovely texture of the skin.
XO chicken noodles
Hand - Rolled Short Rice Noodles with chicken, daikon, shiitakes, XO sauce

This dish really reminded me of the bun du riz I had at Ma Peche (Momofuku midtown) at the end of last year in New York.  Sadly, it's not nearly as good.  The thick hand rolled rice noodles feel like a cross between Chinese rice cake (nian gao) and Italian gnocchi.  I was wishing for more chewiness, and these were just soft. If you like pillowy-soft gnocchi, however, you might really like this. The flavors were OK, although a bit strong on the deep fried baby shrimp flavor.

Initial Thoughts?
I'm slightly disappointed.  I really wanted to love this place.

I agree with others that the restaurant is a bit pricey for what you get, especially since the flavors are not jaw-dropping delicious.  Our total bill was around $82 including 2 beers and 1 pot of tea.  Portion sizes are small.  We did not take home any leftovers because we finished everything without a problem.

I still want to love this place though.

I'm really rooting for these guys.  I WANT this place to succeed. It's not every day that you get a  restaurant in your backyard that specializes in Taiwanese-inspired small dishes with a focus on local, organic, and sustainable ingredients. There's a premium for that, and I'm willing to pay that premium.  I just want to love the flavors of the food as well.

I'll give this place another try in a month or so after they have ironed out some things, and I will report back!

East by Northeast
(Inman Square)
1128 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 876-0286
East by Northeast on Urbanspoon

*Ever since Noodle Alcove closed in Chinatown, we have been longing for hand-pulled noodles.  Beijing Star in Waltham has hand cut noodles, but it's a bit far from Cambridge, and still not as good as the former Noodle Alcove.

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