Dining Out: Chinese Breakout
Who would expect an omelet revelation at a Chinese restaurant? I didn’t. But then I took a bite of the cloudlike oyster omelet at Myers + Chang. As for the oysters, there were just a few, which was fine, as texture was everything. The flavorings were distinctly Asian: garlic and sriracha, the chili-vinegar sauce familiar from Thai cooking. Finally, the pillowy consistency and thin layers made it taste unlike most omelets I’ve had. It was more like a wok-fried soufflé.
But then, Myers + Chang is unlike most Chinese restaurants I’ve been to. Rather than featuring Cantonese cuisine, it primarily serves home-style Taiwanese food based on traditional recipes. And rather than being in Chinatown, it’s in the recently pricey part of the South End, on the ground floor of a fancy new building on Washington Street. The look is 1970s lounge/coffee shop, more L.A. than Boston; the sleek décor’s strongest Asian touch is the red calligraphy running around the plate-glass windows.
This blend of influences makes sense when you consider Myers + Chang’s namesakes, who are two of the most accomplished Bostonians in the restaurant business. Christopher Myers is co-owner of Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay, and a veteran restaurateur. Joanne Chang is the owner of the terrifically successful Flour Bakery + Cafe, located 10 or so blocks up Washington Street, and a woman with an eye for real estate deals in up-and-coming neighborhoods (she recently opened another Flour near the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center). The couple are famously engaged, though they say they haven’t found time to get married.
Their new venture’s hybrid ethos is further underscored by its chef, Alison Hearn, who has what Chang calls a “rigorous” French background, acquired in Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in New York and here at Craigie Street Bistrot and B & G Oysters. Like most French-trained chefs, she loves Asian food—but she’d never cooked it professionally.
Myers + Chang is an experiment, and the interesting, somewhat lopsided menu shows it. But it’s the experiment of people who know and appreciate good food, and that shows, too. Almost everything tastes fresh, brightly flavored, and clean (a prime example: the edamame celery slaw, $4, with a light lift of candied lemon). The flavors are clear but not wimpy. This is stuff you can imagine being served at home, and can eat often. Perhaps that’s thanks to Chang’s mother and grandmother, who both grew up in Taiwan and not only contributed many of the restaurant’s recipes, but also actually demonstrated techniques for its cooks.
Hearn does well, too, with a number of her own inventions. Her spare ribs ($12) could give any Chinese joint a run for its money: brined, as most pork is, tea-smoked, braised, and at the last minute browned with a salt and Szechuan pepper crust. They’re moist but crisp, rich but not fatty—and irresistible. The ribs and that oyster omelet ($12), a product of Hearn’s accidentally starting eggs in a wok that was hotter than she expected, are both must-orders. So is another Hearn-Chang adaptation: pot stickers stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and Chinese greens ($10). Fried almost black on the bottom, and soft and pliant on top, they boast a vinegarand-soy-seasoned filling so vibrant it tastes bright green even if you can’t see it. Though not quite as fantastic, the meat lover’s version, “Mama Chang’s” pork and chive dumplings ($11), is also rather good.
Another classic, dan dan noodle salad ($7), is worth trying, too, if only to experience how something you’ve sampled a hundred times can taste so new. The peanut sauce is made with nuts roasted and ground right in the kitchen. (The restaurant also thoughtfully offers a nut-free menu, the first time I’ve encountered one.) Like the dumpling skins, the wheat noodles in the salad are bought—fresh and refrigerated, like homemade pasta—in Chinatown, and they have the wet resilience that takes in sauce and makes you want to slurp forever. The chicken lettuce wraps ($10) are another modest discovery, seasoned with hoisin, soy, black vinegar, and what the kitchen calls GGS, for “ginger garlic scallion.” The sweet-hot balance is just right, and you have half a mind to order another plate’s worth.
That hankering for more, unfortunately, also points up some of the menu’s less ecstatic aspects. Though the food is reasonably priced and comes out fast, the portions are small—not much suited to sharing—and the pace is clearly aimed at keeping the tables turning. There are no reservations for groups of fewer than six, yet my party never had to wait more than 10 minutes, which a host said was typical. (Apparently atypical was the relatively low noise level; we were not nearly as disappointed by it as a server who expressed alarm that “this is the first night we’ve been quiet!”)
And not all the inventive twists on classics succeed. The “traditional” scallion pancake ($7) is actually puffy, deep-fried focaccia dough—essentially an Italian snack dressed up with scallions and sesame oil, and far removed from the layered (and plenty oily) Chinese standby I craved. Braised pork belly buns ($8) are Chang and Hearn’s interpretation of the familiar Chinese softballs with their sweet barbecue filling, only these are tamed sandwiches that look more like arepas, with sliced pork belly decorously laid between halves of a tough, disappointingly meager bun. The hot and sour soup ($5) was shrill with vinegar and way too salty, which was a problem with several other dishes, too. The Thai ginger chicken salad with lemongrass, Napa cabbage, and rice vermicelli ($9) had lots of fresh chicken breast, but the meat was flavorless, and the sauce, in addition to including too much acid (lime juice) and salt, had an unpleasant shock of bird chili at the end—unlike the delightful kick in, say, the wok-charred udon noodles with chicken and baby bok choy ($11). I did find a favorite main course in the menu’s scant nonpork offerings: a crisped fillet of organic Scottish salmon with ginger, sriracha, and rock sugar ($15), a dish that Chang says she often makes at home. I could have the dish all the time, along with the wok-charred greens ($7), which have just enough soy and garlic to keep them interesting.
There are no desserts on the menu. (If you dine early enough, afterward you could drive up Washington Street to Flour, which closes at 9 p.m.) At the end of your meal, though, you still get a little something sweet with your check—small ginger coins, say, or shot glasses filled with lemon mousse. It will leave you refreshed and eager to eat at Myers + Chang again soon: to try the new dishes, to have those ribs and pot stickers, and to enjoy the buzz, no matter how loud it is.
Myers + Chang, 1145 Washington St., Boston, 617-542-5200.
Appetizers Tea-smoked spare ribs ($12); dan dan noodle salad ($7); pot stickers filled with shiitake mushrooms and Chinese greens ($10); chicken lettuce wraps ($10)
Entrées Organic Scottish salmon ($15); oyster omelet ($12)
Side Wok-charred greens ($7)