The best place to sit at Blackbrick is certainly the kitchen bar. From there, you can watch the 63-year-old chef from Hong Kong stir-fry mustard greens in his red-hot wok. The way he works is soothing -- how swiftly he moves and how intently he waits, hands behind his back, while you eat. He hopes for a grin, a murmur, any sign you're enjoying your meal. And when you show him approval, he smiles and little wrinkles form around his black, ebullient eyes.
There is rarely time for chitchat at this Chinese restaurant in midtown. Chefs scrub woks, steam dumplings, fry noodles, and toast Szechuan peppers at an alarming pace. A four-plate dinner can be finished in 45 minutes.
But before you even think to complain, the check arrives. On a recent Friday night, the bill for two amounted to just $42.
Richard Hales is well-versed in affordable dining. At Sakaya Kitchen, his first restaurant,
you can order kalbi beef tater tots and Korean fried chicken wings at a counter. Now with two locations, Sakaya belongs to the most recent wave of Asian-fusion cuisine. The menu includes grilled eggplant sourced from Palm Beach County and pork that's been roasted for eight hours and then stuffed inside Chinese bao buns.
These same buns are available at Hales' Blackbrick, which opened in December in a small space just a short walk from Sakaya in midtown. At Blackbrick, these steamed buns sit like fluffy cushions next to bone-in slices of Peking duck. Hales bathes the whole duck in a wok, dries it for a full day with fans in the walk-in cooler, and roasts it until the meat is tender and flavorful.
Its skin is paper-thin, mahogany in color, and scented with a secret house blend of 12 spices. Alongside the duck and bao buns come hoisin sauce, slivered cucumber and scallions, and a fried pan-cake cut into triangles called roti prata.
It's not too far removed from the Peking duck you've had at old-school Chinese restaurants. Only here, the smear of chili sauce and the garnish of sesame seeds hint at the hand of a chef.
Peking duck hails from Beijing, but Hales toys with numerous other Chinese cuisines. In 2012, the former Hong Kong resident explored that country's northeast region. He became obsessed with the food: cumin-spiked lamb, congee, preserved meats, and wheat-
based starches such as noodles and steamed buns. Now he prepares his own version of
that cuisine and combines it with Szechuan, Hunan, and American Chinese recipes.
Some dishes might remind you of typical Chinese take-out. Hales' renditions, however, are probably much better. For his wonton soup, he crams shrimp and aromatics into handmade wontons. The finished dumplings bob in an auburn broth made from rabbit bones and chicken necks. He adds roast pork and house-made bucatini-style noodles -- thick, sturdy, and chewy. Finished with fried noodles, this wonton soup might just become your go-to nine-buck lunch.
It fares equally well for dine-in or take-out -- and so does the dandan mian. Employing the same high-gluten noodles as the soup, this dish combines ground Niman Ranch pork with Szechuan peppers, celery seeds, and grains of paradise. It's a spicy flavor bomb -- sour, fiery, and nutty, the last quality courtesy of fresh sesame paste and roasted white sesame seeds.
The combination of spices might overwhelm some diners. But at Blackbrick, there's a whiskey-heavy cocktail menu to wash it all down. That, along with local craft beers and a wine list prepared by a former French Laundry sommelier, work well to numb the harshest of Szechuan piquancy.
For less ambitious eaters, the duck fried rice is a safer option. Bits of Peking duck mix with bacon, yellow wine, scallions, and the dried, hard Chinese sausage known as lap cheong. Servers dressed in black whisk the plate to your table while it's still shimmering from the wok's scorching heat.
On the menu, there's also General Tso-style Florida alligator, ma po tofu, almond cookie ice cream sourced from Azucar on Calle Ocho, and simpler things such as stir-fried vegetables. With a bowl of jasmine rice, you can make a nice meal of Hales' eggplant -- which is soft, sweet, and soaked in oyster sauce.
It would be a shame not to try the dim sum, though. For now, Blackbrick proffers only a few options: dumplings stuffed with lamb or kohlrabi; pork bao buns; and shrimp and vegetable egg rolls. The last are crisp, golden, and balanced by a pumpkin dipping sauce. Soon, Hales will expand those offerings and launch a full-service dim sum brunch.
Until then, you can visit his Chinese restaurant for the roast pork-stuffed flatbread,
jellyfish salad, and chilled poached chicken thighs. Though it's those dishes that may
lure you to Blackbrick, it's the other things that will keep you coming back: the warm
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wonton soup, the vibrant duck fried rice, and the gentle chef in square specs who gives
you a thumbs-up as you walk out the door.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.