Photos: Brandon McGhee
St. Cavish on a favorite new Chinese chef, Yang Wen.
It takes time to make Y’s Kitchen’s
duck soup. Not in the usual sense, of time to simmer, though it needs that too. But time to grow and time to age. The ducks that chef Yang Wen uses are two years old, time to mature, peck around, and develop a deep and rich flavor. The orange peel that flavors the soup is said to be 30 years old, from Guangdong, and the product of a bit of pre-planning. (The older the better, by a certain medicinal logic.) And finally, once Yang has assembled the ingredients in the kitchen of his new restaurant on Jinxian Lu, it requires a one-day notice to order — at 428rmb for a large tureen, it’s not an everyday preparation that sits in the kitchen waiting for customers.
In two recent meals, that soup, subtly flavored with orange, sweetened with red jujubes, and given depth and body with additional pork and chicken feet, was the star of the show, a highly clarified broth with an intense duck flavor. And unlike this version
, made at Hangzhou’s famed Dragon Well Manor, there is flavor left in the dark pink meat.
The second dish, close behind the duck soup, was almost its opposite: large planks of a zucchini-like vegetable stir-fried with dark threads of dried scallop and white discs of fresh sea scallop. The xiang gua
, as the vegetable is called, was meaty and substantial, the funky dried scallop flavor a deep umami, and the fresh scallop light and delicate. Together, it’s a strong argument for Chinese cuisine’s tradition of putting the vegetables front and center, letting them be the star, and having a small amount of meat or seafood as an accent.
Prior to opening Y’s Kitchen, Yang spent a 15-year kitchen at the stoves of fine-dining Italian restaurants around town, not the wok station of a Chinese restaurant. If anything, that background has given him the freedom and the desire to experiment with Chinese food, from little touches like using rosemary in a clean and crisp drunken chicken to more upfront flourishes like using a substantial amount of dried fish in his hongshao rou
for salt and an extra umami punch, or reproducing dishes that aren’t commonly seen in Shanghai, like a Chaozhou-style steamed pomfret, sweet with tomatoes and sour with plum and pickled vegetables.
He stays down south with a large claypot rice, which gets the usual lap cheong sausage but also Chinese bacon, and a thick slice of foie gras spread with black truffle paste. Elsewhere, he adds the very Shanghai yellow croaker to the very Sichuan mapo tofu, and serves his prawn and shepherd’s purse wontons shallow-fried, not boiled. He uses pomfret for a warm xun yu
and serves his own cured duck breast, sliced thin like ham, with a few stalks of arugula.
In some corners, no doubt, there are more traditional chefs griping about Yang and his romp around Chinese cuisine, picking out what suits him and discarding the rest. To me, that’s what make him refreshing, and makes the menu fun to browse (take a Chinese reader with you though — English translation is not their strong suit) and even better to eat from. He’s taken on influences from across China and beyond and unabashedly made them his own, the very definition of Shanghai and her residents.
Finally, I like Yang for his dedication to the restaurant. He’s a minor celebrity in the Chinese food world for his appearance on TV cooking shows but you wouldn’t know it by just dropping into the restaurant. The last time I did, to place an order for the soup, he was there, in his chef whites, at 4 in the afternoon, sitting at a table and helping his young daughter with her homework. Every time I’ve been for dinner, he’s been there, skipping between the dining room and the kitchen. And every morning when I open my Moments, he’s there again, posting pictures of his midnight trips to the big wholesale vegetable market, something many chefs claim to do but few actually live. Less than a year after opening, Y’s Kitchen has become a favorite. That's really no time at all. Eat It.
Y's Kitchen, 120 Jinxian Lu, near Maoming Lu