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Playing it safe at Mott St

The folks behind Ruxbin try their hand at Asian street food.



I think I know where Edward Kim is going with the mentaiko kimchi udon he's serving at Mott St, the pan-Asian-street-food/night-market-inspired restaurant that's his follow-up to the celebrated and more straightforward Ruxbin. In Japan there's a current culinary trend called itameshi, essentially a Japanese take on Italian food that might produce, say, a tangle of spaghetti tossed with fish eggs, seaweed, and soy sauce. With the udon, Kim throws in a Korean twist, as he's wont to do, dressing the noodles with a light, almost creamy, kimchi-based sauce that contains thousands of tiny pollack roe that lend a great texture to the soft noodles. The dish is topped with scallions, bright green wasabi-dyed fish eggs, and feathery bonito shavings that shimmer and squirm dreamily, and help to contribute to the sense of nostalgia that itameshi is said to be associated with.

Kim may be going for that nostalgia—or for a completely different mind-set. Because these qualities also add up to a dish—probably the best on the menu—that is pure stoner food. And there's more where that came from.

Kim and partners Vicki Kim (his sister) and Jenny Kim (unrelated) have tricked out the former La Brochette, a Moroccan restaurant that atmospherically could never quite shake the ghosts of the fast-food rib joint that preceded it. Much in the same way that the folks behind Parson's made an awkward former fast-food place their own, the Kim trio personalized their space with wooden and chicken-wire cabinets for open storage in the bright, snug, bar-dominated dining room, and with a lovely patio to the side of the building that looks in on the bustling kitchen. This is the venue for chef Kim's nebulous collection of vaguely Asian, cheffed-up street food, a path plenty of others have taken in recent years, whether they stepped out of their food trucks into brick and mortar or stepped down from fine dining to survive in the real economy. Kim's way is to throw together mostly Korean elements with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and even Polish and Mexican ones. The results are indiscriminate, as opposed to those at, say, Fat Rice, where the cuisine is indeed a fusion (in that case, of Portuguese and Chinese) but built on a tradition that's developed and proven itself over centuries.

So Mott St offers a version of Punjabi butter chicken, repulsively (and deceptively) dubbed "Harry's Butter Thighs": confit poultry parts (including drumsticks), unceremoniously scattered with bean sprouts and cilantro, drowning in a thick tomato-butter sauce that barely references the melange of spices meant to suffuse this dish. Then you have the hangtown fry. Mott's iteration of this oyster-bacon omelet, born in the California gold rush, has soft-scrambled eggs piled atop a thin, crispy pancake bedecked with hard-fried oysters and pickled mushrooms, all doused with hoisin sauce. It's another amorphous mess—not bad tasting, just muddled.

Perhaps the most intriguing and superficially challenging dish is the crab-brain fried rice. That's a name that will magnetize a certain species of adventurous eater. But again, the flavors are muted, and the texture of the "brains," which are in fact the totality of the crab's internal organs, disappears in the soft, just-overcooked rice.

Baby-food textures accompany other dishes too. Aggressively spiced calamari is stir-fried, Korean style, with gochujang, and set atop a raft of half-chunky, half-whipped potatoes that I suppose are meant to provide balance. Instead, it tastes like two incompatible dishes on the same plate.

But then there is quite a lot of gnawable food, too: grilled and fried meats on sticks and bones. Large, sugary, soy-glazed chicken wings bedded on dried chiles are studded with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and fried shallots. "Like an everything bagel," your server will say. You're meant to dip them in tzatziki sauce, which makes about as much sense as squirting soy sauce on a gyro. Ribbons of grilled pork jowl are tossed with bland cubes of tofu, and bits of grilled pork neck come with a Thai dipping sauce, nam jim jaew, which is typically incendiary but here is so watered-down you could safely apply it to a teething baby's gums.

The house salad follows this example with a weak, fish-sauce-based vinaigrette, pureed raw carrot, and unseasoned rice "tots." The whole thing tastes like eating from a freshly overwatered garden.

There are some nice things to ferret out on this menu. Kim's Korean cold buckwheat noodles, or naengmyeon, are an improvement over every slippery, slimy version I've had before, with a cool, clear, and appropriately mild broth, a dose of kimchi to spice things up, and ruddy, toothy noodles that don't present the choking hazard inherent in many bowls of this dish.

A pair of chicken gizzard skewers paired with grilled rice cakes are fine, but their accompanying soy-caramel sauce is outstanding, something I'd love to have seen applied to a more substantial dish, like the special grilled halibut collar I picked apart with fingers and chopsticks.

Apart from the udon, Kim's most successful—and original—dish is his stuffed cabbage, described as a "kimchi lasagna." Two cohesive beds of crispy seared sticky rice sandwich shredded pork in a pool of kimchi broth. Brightly and aggressively flavored, it's the first sturdy bridge between cuisines—Polish and Korean—on the menu.

Mott St has an interesting beverage program, mostly Asian-inspired cocktails that are light, refreshing, and unlikely to start trouble—including the Malort-and-whiskey-based How Bazaar. But most appealing is a changing series of beer-and-shot pairings: something dark with an Italian amaro, or the grapefruit-flavored Stiegl Radler with a pour of Malort. The thing here is that the beers are poured over ice Vietnamese style, which in hot climates can be the most civilized and refreshing way to drink them. It's a clever, successful, and effortless adaptation of a particular cultural quirk, one of the few that really works here.

Despite its worldly pretensions, Mott St doesn't take many chances. There is some seriously sloppy food, both appealingly and unnervingly so. A meal here can be substantial and comforting, but this is no Asian night market—the flavors are as safe and unthreatening as a night on the couch with a bong.

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