I was late and we were definitely going to have to wait. But then, we were going to have to wait anyway because it was, of course, “No reservations”. “Oh, I haven’t asked them how long it will be because I thought you might have… an arrangement,” offered one of my dining companions who had been waiting outside on a crowded bench, enjoying the drama. “I just saw a spectacular row between the manager and someone who couldn’t stand it anymore. It was quite something.”
It was going to be north of an hour to get a table. As I gave my contact details I wondered if Anna Sui and Sofia Coppola – already inside – might have had one of these aforementioned “arrangements”. Or if they might just actually know to call up an hour before they wanted to eat, which – judging by the receptionist chatting on the phone – seemed to be what a lot of people do (me? I call that a reservation). Not to worry, there were very good margaritas at the bar on the corner, and my party had plenty to catch up on. 45 minutes later a text from Red Farm arrives. The table is ready and we have five minutes to get there. We rush, because they’ve turned away 800 people on a single night before, because I’ve heard the food is spectacular and, above all else, because I want to eat dim sum dumplings in the shape of Pac-Man characters.
Bitching about “No reservations” is getting tired, but I still refuse to tolerate or get used to it, unless it’s somewhere cavernous, with a quick turnover and a reasonable price point, squarely aimed at twentysomethings. Red Farm is none of these things. Margaritas abandoned at the previous location, we still had to dodge waiters for ten minutes while our table was made ready, and when it was, we were all astonished that a tiny side booth for two had been co-opted into being a table for three by adding a chair which immediately blocked the main artery of one half of the restaurant. I insisted on taking this seat, keen to see how the staff would negotiate my reluctance to stand up whenever they wanted to pass. I also wanted to see how they’d cope with delivering three greedy buggers’ orders onto a table the size of a postcard.
While the presence of Sui and Coppola sets a certain tone at Red Farm, the shrill drunks dining en famille at the centre table on my Sunday evening visit set quite another. The interior suggests low key late-afternoon café rather than night-time hotspot. It has a lot of that modish, rough and tumble rustic style going on: whitewashed brick, bare wood, copper cans, wire, hanging metal pipes… but with splashes of red gingham. It’s like the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre after a spring clean by Doris Day. Apart from the chopsticks on the table, there’s nothing to suggest that you’re about to eat Chinese food. But then this is – according to owner Ed Schoenfeld –“farm style” Chinese. I take that to mean that it’s Chinese food for white New Yorkers who shop at the Greenmarkets in Brooklyn. Which isn’t to say it’s bad – it’s just that getting to the point of actually eating the stuff is such a palaver. But then we all know: demand creates demand and that’s how you have a hit restaurant and expand it into a goldmine. From tiny acorns, a bit of novelty and an orchard of hype, etc.
A dish of veggie fried rice was pedestrian and seemed like the kind of thing Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley rebelled against in Showgirls: “Do you like brown rice and steamed vegetables?!”
While basking in the murderous looks from anyone trying to get past my side of the room, I started on a plate of smoked cucumbers and a cucumber martini. You don’t have to order them together, but it seemed a nice idea. Both are excellent. Cucumber can be quite the anaemic salad padding, but when smoked, it becomes so much more than just green molecules of water held together by ennui. It retained the greenhouse freshness of the martini I washed it down with. The standout dish of the evening was the spicy crispy beef. Not actually all that spicy, but certainly dark, rich and to the tooth. Another of my party was similarly enthused by the pan-fried lamb dumplings, but that’s one mammal I can’t dine on, so I passed.
The much talked about Pac-Man shrimp dumplings were supercharged, deluxe dim sum. The dumplings serve as the ghosts, in pastel pretty colours, with eyes, while Pac-Man is represented by deep fried sweet potato in a bed of avocado. Cuteness ensues. The filling is dense, moist, and a million miles away from the largely defrosted mass-produced gunk of Chinatown. Better still were the soup dumplings – huge and juicy and on par with any I’ve had in Hong Kong (and I’ve had a fair few).
I had a short rib main dish, which was perfectly lovely, with the meat falling from the bone, but by and large the mains lacked the flavour surprise of the smaller plates. A dish of veggie fried rice was pedestrian and seemed like the kind of thing Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley rebelled against in Showgirls: “Do you like brown rice and steamed vegetables?!” None of us could face a dessert, but one imagines few can at Red Farm. The way to dine here is on several small plates, and to spin them around your imaginary Lazy Susan. Oh yes, about that – it turns out (surprise!) our table was far too small for three. Waiters (lovely indeed, and all working their arses off) hovered with dishes ready to land while we scraped one dish into another to make space. Which isn’t how it should be done.
There are three or four dishes at Red Farm that are truly outstanding, and there’s cooking here as good as anything you’ll find in New York. The flavours and textures are at once fresh and sticky and memorable. It’d be a great restaurant if it hadn’t become a victim of its own success. You still might love it if you want to go with nine friends (minimum booking is for a party of 10) or you happen to be in the neighbourhood at opening time. Ed Schoenfeld already has huge expansion plans and is opening a new, much bigger space on the Upper West Side. He’s also going to start offering take out. So I will be back, but I might not be staying.
Red Farm, 529 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014 USA
(212) 792 9700; redfarmnyc.com