The most exciting table in the country right now is the large round wooden one that sits in the front right corner of Bonnie's, chef Calvin Eng's Brooklyn paean to Cantonese American cooking. It's especially thrilling at the moment when the generous lazy Susan that sits in the center is quivering under the weight of the food. The table, which seats up to 10, is the only one in the restaurant capable of holding the entire menu—which is the only way you'll want to order.
Bonnie's is Eng's debut restaurant, and it is less than a year old, but the menu is essentially an extremely dialed-in list of greatest hits. Another way to put it? It's all bangers, no misses. Bowls of long beans are seared in a wok and tossed with a garlicky compound butter made with fuyu (fermented bean curd) and served with chewy Chinese crullers that act as the perfect croutons. Salt-and-pepper squid fresh from the fryer arrives piping hot and piled high, ready to be dunked in a bowl of what Eng calls "Chinese ranch" (essentially mayo with garlic, chives, and MSG). You'll fight fellow diners to finish the dao si heen jing sui dan, a bowl of steamed clams in egg custard drizzled with a wonderfully savory black bean–garlic sauce.
The menu offers an expansive vision of Cantonese American cooking. Some dishes are playful, like the char siu "McRib" sandwich, or the wun tun en brodo, a dish that eagerly swaps tortellini pasta for delicate fish- and shrimp-stuffed wontons that float in a deep citrus-Parmesan broth. He proves that even though cacio e pepe might be an Italian dish, it's best cooked in a wok with a Cantonese pantry, tossing slippery bucatini noodles with fuyu, butter, and heavy handfuls of black and white pepper and finishing with plenty of pecorino cheese to make one of the sharpest cacio e pepes you've ever had.
Eng also honors less familiar Cantonese techniques and recipes, such as the mesmerizing yeung yu sang choi bao, a deboned whole rainbow trout that is stuffed with a mousse made from the fish, shrimp, garlic chives, and water chestnuts; pan-fried until crispy; and then reconstructed to look like the whole fish. It's a dish Eng grew up eating as a child in Brooklyn—he would spend the full day making it with his mom and aunt—but Eng hasn't seen it served at any other Cantonese restaurant in the country. (He spent several years searching for examples of it elsewhere.)
Opening a restaurant of his own was always Eng's goal. After culinary school, rather than chasing big-name elite kitchens to put on his resume, he made sure to work in restaurants where he could pick up specific skills. At the fast-casual chain Dig (formerly known as Dig Inn), he learned to manage a high-volume operation at a relatively low price point. "I learned so much about making things foolproof," says Eng. He moved on to Nom Wah Nolita, the legendary dim sum house's more casual operation, before a stint at Win Son, co-owned by 2020 F&W Best New Chef Trigg Brown — Eng admired their unapologetic approach to Taiwanese American food. Brown soon offered Eng the chef de cuisine position."I was introduced to all these different things that you don't get anywhere else," Eng says, speaking about his front-row seat to the nitty-gritty of kitchen operations.
Bonnie's, which opened in 2021, is in many ways Eng's ode to his Cantonese American upbringing. The restaurant name is his mother's American nickname. The tiles that line the floor are from cha chaan tengs, the beloved old-school tea restaurants of Hong Kong, where she grew up. Images of Manhattan's Chinatown, where Eng spent a lot of time as a child, hang on the walls.
Eng is very careful to say that his cooking is Cantonese American and not "American Chinese." "The flavors and ideas will always be Cantonese, and the philosophy behind it all," he says. "But I have and will always have influences from all over."
Bonnie's, 398 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY, bonniesbrooklyn.com
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