The best new “gefilte” fish in town isn’t at a kosher grocery store. 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 a fun fusion with its unique dishes ranging from cacio e pepe to McDonald’s McRib. Named after the mother of Bay Ridge-born chef Calvin Eng, it’s been one of the hardest places to get to since it opened in December.
Be aware of this: Bonnie’s (not to be confused with Bonnie’s Grill unrelated to Park Slope) can be just as loud as the nearby BQE. A loud bar out front might remind you of a sports bar with a more elegant clientele. A red exit sign is the closest thing to decor in a spare white room.
But its 40 seats alone are worth fighting for — or at least waiting — for.
Eng cheerfully reinterprets Chinese favorites in New York style with respect for Asian and European influences. A good introduction to his playful approach is canned dace fish, a common item in Chinese supermarkets here but rare in restaurants. The species in the carp family is deliciously tossed in fermented black bean sauce and served with what the menu calls “premium salt” for an easy grab.
Tiny fish and shrimp wontons in a citrus-parmesan broth make a suave visual imitation of brodo tortellini, but the pungent flavor is anything but chicken soup. A more ambitious Italian start, 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 renditions of cacio e pepe I had in Rome.
Eng garnishes the bucatini with pecorino and Parmesan cheese leaves. The pasta is sparkled with black and white pepper and gives a satisfying umami depth to Chinese fermented bean paste.
They sadly ran out of cha siu iced McRibs – pork sandwiches on croissants – which had guests at a different table squealing in delight. But for my money, the show stopper is yeung yu sang choi bao – not exactly gefilte, but has the slightly funky taste and soothing mouthfeel of the Jewish family favorite.
It’s a labor-intensive dish of whole trout that Eng says he made “as a kid with my mom and aunt when we wanted to spend the day together in the kitchen.
“Customers who are not 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: “It’s like gefilte fish but 10 times better.”
Eng debones the trout and removes the skin. The fish is minced with shrimp, water chestnut, ginger and garlic chives, then whipped to a fishcake texture.
The mixture is put back in the skin, crispy, cut into eight sections and served with the head and tail. Pickled green mustard provides the slightly tart 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, her smooth, sweet essence is all you’ll ever need or want.