The city’s best new “gefilte” fish isn’t at a Kosher deli. It’s at a Cantonese-American restaurant in Brooklyn where some dishes taste more Italian than Chinese. Is New York a fun place to eat, or what?
Bonnie’s, at 398 Manhattan Ave. in Williamsburg, is 2022’s “It place” for fun fusion with its unique takes on dishes from cacio e pepe to McDonald’s McRib. Named for Bay Ridge-born chef Calvin Eng’s mom, it’s been one of the hardest places to get into since it opened in December.
Know this: Bonnie’s (not to be confused with unrelated Bonnie’s Grill in Park Slope) can be as loud as the nearby BQE. A raucous front bar might remind you of a sports bar with more stylish clientele. A red exit sign’s the closest thing to decor in a spare white room.
But its mere 40 seats are worth fighting — or at least waiting — for.
Eng cheerfully reinterprets New York-style Chinese favorites in a way that respects both Asian and European influences. A good introduction to his playful approach is dace fish in a tin, a common item in Chinese supermarkets here but rare in restaurants. The carp-family species is lusciously melded with fermented black bean sauce and served with what the menu calls “premium Saltines” for easy scooping.
Tiny fish and shrimp wontons in parmesan citrus broth do a suave visual impersonation of tortellini en brodo, but the zesty flavor is anything but chicken soup. A more ambitious Italianate departure, fuyu cacio e pepe mein, could be a fiasco in lesser hands, but Eng really knows what he’s doing.
The waiter announced, “It tastes like Rome but it starts in a wok with fermented bean curd.” In fact, I liked it better than many cacio e pepe renditions I’ve had in Rome.
Eng tops bucatini with sheets of pecorino and parmesan cheese. The pasta is sparked by black and white pepper and lent a satisfying umami depth with Chinese fermented bean paste.
They sadly were out of cha siu-glazed McRibs — pork sandwiches on croissants — that had guests at a different table yelping with joy. But for my money, the showstopper is yeung yu sang choi bao — not exactly gefilte, but possessed of the Jewish family favorite’s slightly funky taste and soothing mouth feel.
It’s a labor-intensive, whole trout dish that Eng said he made “as a kid with my mom and aunt when we wanted to spend the day in the kitchen together.
“Customers who aren’t Cantonese tell me it reminds me of gefilte fish,” Eng said. With a difference: One of my guests who was unaware of Eng’s comment enthused, “This is like gefilte fish but 10 times better.”
Eng bones the trout and removes the skin. The fish is minced with shrimp, water chestnut, ginger and garlic chives, then whipped to the texture of a fish cake.
The mixture is stuffed back into the skin, crisped up, cut into eight sections and served with head and tail. Pickled green mustard provides the mildly acidic icing on the cake.
There’s only one dessert (besides a fruit plate) — a chow nai sundae of melted fried milk, Ovaltine hot fudge, vanilla ice cream and buttered peanuts. But after so many sparks and surprises, its sweet and smooth essence is all you’ll need or want.