Emily Atlas and Donna Tallent
Donna and I recently met at a Natural Selections interest meeting and learned that we both love food and exploring the various food options of the Upper East Side and beyond. Although some friends have told me that the Upper East Side has limited interesting food options, in my two months so far as a student at Rockefeller, I have found that this is not entirely true. We heard about a new Sichuan restaurant called Hui that opened about three months ago and thought it would be fun to share a meal together, try a few dishes, and then tell a Tale of Two Meals.
If you’re walking up 70th Street toward Second Avenue, it’s hard to miss this ground-floor spot with its large maroon awning. Hui is situated in the Lenox Hill neighborhood, equidistant from Hunter College and Weill Cornell Medical College, and three short blocks from The Rockefeller University. Even at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, which is an early dinner hour for most New Yorkers, I observed a steady stream of pedestrian traffic heading inside or pausing to check out the menu as I stood out front waiting for Emily to arrive. One woman, someone who I imagined was local to the neighborhood, stopped and addressed me where I stood, as if I were some sort of an ambassador for the restaurant: “Grand Opening…Is this a new Chinese restaurant?”, she asked.
We had a 5:30 p.m. reservation at Hui. Having just come from an interesting Friday Lecture, I hustled to Hui, a 5-10 minute walk from Rockefeller’s campus. As I walked, I thought about how I had not yet found many Chinese restaurants near Rockefeller. In fact, before going to Hui, I had only been to Xi’an Famous Foods, a small shop on 78th Street that serves thick hand-pulled noodles, famously spiced with cumin. Delicious as it may be, Xi’an Famous Foods focuses mostly on noodles and regional specialties from the Xi’an province of China. While I am excited about the uptick of more authentic and regional Chinese restaurants in New York City, my childhood memories of Chinese food consist mostly of Chinese-American versions of Sichuan and Shanghainese food, and I still crave many of those dishes.
Hui, with its white tablecloths, attentive staff, and family-style portions, reminded me of the Chinese restaurants my family frequented when I was a child, but with much more of a modern-day feel. The exposed brick walls, grey wood floors, and sculptured metalwork décor give the restaurant a polished yet comfortable and inviting vibe. There’s also a lovely yet sleek, soft-lit, fully-stocked bar if you’re looking for a cocktail and a quick nibble. Hui is a place to have an after-work drink, an intimate meal with a friend, or a large family gathering.
The first thing I noticed was that the décor shows a lot of attention to detail. This is a place to go for a sit-down meal in a way that Xi’an Famous Foods is not. The restaurant was a tad empty at 5:30 p.m., but it filled up over the course of our meal, and was near capacity by 7:00 p.m.
The attentive wait staff quickly informed us that it was Happy Hour (every day from 5-8 p.m.). I ordered a glass of a dry Riesling ($6 at Happy Hour), a good wine to pair with Chinese dishes.
The menu had a near-overwhelming array of choices. Luckily, Donna and I agreed to share our dishes, so we could try as much as possible. We decided on scallion pancakes (six pieces for $7.95) and pork steamed buns (six soup-filled buns for $9.95). We also ordered the spicy and sour beef pot ($21.95) and the spicy and sour shredded potatoes ($13.95). Scallion pancakes and pork steamed buns (also known as pork soup dumplings, juicy pork buns, or xiaolongbao [shau-long-bau]) are two familiar dishes I try, if available, to get a sense of any new Chinese restaurant I check out.
When the scallion pancakes arrived, I wasn’t sure whether I would like them. I tend to look for crispy, browned, bubbly scallion pancakes with only a slight sheen of oil. These particular scallion pancakes were not browned, and frankly looked a little greasy. However, I was struck by how delicate they were. They were both crispy and chewy and paired perfectly with the dipping sauce of soy sauce, ginger, and rice vinegar. The pork steamed buns arrived piping hot in a bamboo steamer. The soup inside the buns was flavorful and rich and the pork was well seasoned. I was most impressed with the dumpling dough, which was delicate and cooked perfectly. You could tell that the dumplings were freshly made.
Finally, our main dishes arrived. The waitress had told us earlier that the sour and spicy shredded potato dish was one her mom used to make for her when she was a child, and eating the dish evoked nostalgic feelings of home for her. I dove right into the potatoes, which were very thinly julienned and crisp, with a vinegary tang. There were many thinly sliced red chilis and the dish was extremely spicy. I have a very high spice tolerance and I enjoy spicy foods, but by the end of the meal, my lips were definitely feeling the effects of the capsaicin. The spicy and sour beef pot was less spicy, but still flavorful. Donna seemed to prefer this dish, but I found it hard to enjoy the subtler flavors after digging into the potatoes; that is one of the perils of highly spiced foods.
Emily and I ordered beer and wine from the almost-half-price happy hour menu (beer is $4 a glass, wine is $6 a glass) and then pored through pages and pages of glossy menu items, including full-color photos of dishes from ten different categories: Cold Appetizers, Hot Appetizers, Soup, Salad, Vegetables, Entrees, Rice and Noodles, Special Clay Pot, Chef Specialties, and Desserts.
It didn’t take us long to pick out several items we felt were worth sampling: From Hot Appetizers, juicy steamed buns and scallion pancakes. Emily showed me how to eat the steamed buns, piping hot and full of luscious, savory broth, by gently balancing a bun on your spoon, nibbling the top until the broth trickles out, and then slurping up the broth. I attempted to be graceful with the first dumpling, but by my third, I began to shove them into my mouth whole. The scallion pancakes were light, crisp, and flaky. I imagined they received a quick, delicious dip into a shallow pan of oil and told Emily I could just eat an entire plate of only them. From Vegetables, spicy and sour shredded potatoes, which were too spicy for me but Emily seemed to love; and from Chef Specialties, the spicy and sour beef pot. Now this specialty dish was the plate of food that will make me return to Hui. A generous pile of shredded beef lay on top of rice noodles, which swam in a perfectly seasoned beef broth. I left my to-go box on the table and truly mourn for my abandoned, uneaten leftovers.
All in all, I had a great meal at Hui with Donna and would definitely return! Hui has a reasonably priced lunch menu and it would be a good break from my usual Collaborative Research Center or Weiss lunches.
314 E 70th Street, between First and Second Avenues
Lunch specials served Monday-Friday, 11:30–3:30 p.m.
According to Web site, online orders are 10% off until December 31, 2018
Visit Web site for hours and additional daily specials.