*Mr. Koo’s has closed as of January 4, 2019.
If Mr. Koo’s were a man, he would be exciting and creative, someone whose company you would crave. Yet, he would also be unpredictable — and therein lies the issue with this Modern Cantonese restaurant in downtown Irvington. Here, the flavors are vivid, the concepts innovative, and the culinary experience truly mind-expanding. Yet, some fundamentals (such as appropriate utensils) are missing.
The menu changes weekly, and the dishes — while rooted in Chinese cooking — rope in elements from other parts of the globe, such as the Middle East and Spain. Not surprisingly, considering his background in film production, chef-owner Ben Pope is a master plater. With thoughtful, apt garnishes, his dishes are colorful and enticing to the eye.
They also provide a primer in exotic produce. On my first visit, the fare incorporated kohlrabi, sunchokes, persimmon, celery hearts, Chinese long beans, daikon radish, Treviso radicchio, and mustard greens. On my second, green Chinese radish and kumquats had also made their way onto the menu. Not only does Pope work with unusual ingredients, he also prepares them in distinctive ways.
In one appetizer, he roasts the aforementioned green radish and pairs it with bitter, charred Treviso; spiced labne (Middle Eastern yogurt), and sweet-and-sour pickled kumquats. Meanwhile, he tops heirloom cauliflower with zippy “Chinese gremolata,” and swaps sunchokes in for the classic potatoes in his version of the fried Spanish tapas dish patatas bravas, serving pickled celery hearts and red sambal aioli alongside.
Pope is also an accompaniment master, concocting deeply flavored, chunky, not-too-sweet persimmon chutney for the seared duck breast; a complex sauce redolent of soy and miso for the stir-fried smoked tofu; and sweet, vividly hued beet-ginger-apple purée for the cider-glazed char sui meatballs. Thoughtfully, he designates dishes as vegetarian, gluten-free, and containing soy, and reveals meat sources (such as Murray’s certified humane chicken thighs and Crescent Farms duck breast).
Unfortunately, though, the cooking of proteins was uneven. While they were prepared perfectly in the soy sauce chicken and shrimp with vermicelli, the meatballs were overly dense and firm. Meanwhile, the duck emerged from the kitchen medium-well (rather than the medium-rare I’d requested), and the flanken-cut beef short ribs were tough and chewy, almost devoid of edible meat. Frustrating, considering the $24 price. Also disappointing, during one of my visits, my side of rice was undercooked.
The menu is a bit uneven. It includes simpler, economical dishes, such as the aforementioned tofu ($14), along with more baroque, pricey fare, such as the duck ($28). Portions tend to be on the smaller side, so you might want to order two appetizers and one entrée per person, resulting in a relatively pricey meal. While the menu does not list desserts, the restaurant sometimes offers one. Other than an intriguing crumble topping (featuring citron), the frozen chocolate pudding I sampled was forgettable. Plan to get your sweet fix elsewhere.
Although Mr. Koo’s describes its format as family-style, dishes are difficult to share, due to the absence of appropriate serving utensils. Diners are given chopsticks, which are not up to the task of spooning out the many crave-worthy sauces. Instead, Mr. Koo’s should set its tables with forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks, and bring out dishes with large spoons or sharp knives, if required. In addition, the restaurant needs to educate its servers about the intricacies of its unusual menu, including the ingredients in various dishes.
Helping to distract from those issues, the setting is appealing. Bright and clean, it features white-washed wooden floors, white walls, an open kitchen, and black-and-white family photographs. The steamed-up windows and enticing aromas of soy sauce and roast duck are apt harbingers of the high-impact flavors to come. Although the overall feeling is modern and clean, the space is still homey and cozy (my only nitpick is that the rear bathroom is frigid).
Like a blank canvas, the stark-white space allows Pope’s artistry to shine. A true innovator, this Hong Kong and Brooklyn transplant is one to watch. Once he irons out the few kinks, Mr. Koo’s could be a masterpiece.
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Cos Cob-based writer Dina Cheney is the author of The New Milks; 100-Plus Dairy-Free Recipes for Making and Cooking with Soy, Nut, Seed, Grain, and Coconut Milks (Atria/Simon & Schuster).