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When a Happy Mistake Inspires a Dish
Anatomy of Vegan Homemade Longevity Noodles for Lunar New Year at Fat Choy
What happens when a dish is inspired by a happy accident? That’s what happened in Justin Lee’s kitchen at Fat Choy (250 Broome St., Manhattan) when he led overcooked noodles to the deep fryer. They came out so great — and reminded him of Longevity Noodles from celebrations of his youth — that they’re the basis for his vegan version for Lunar New Year available Feb. 1 through at least the mid-month Lantern Festival.
Fat Choy’s Vegan Homemade Longevity Noodles start with a Shanghai-style wheat noodle that’s overcooked, sits overnight, then deep-fries the next day. Meanwhile, Lee chars ginger, garlic, and scallions, then cooks the ingredients with white wine until it’s reduced, and blends everything with soy and silken tofu to give it a luxurious mouthfeel. The noodles are then served with seared julienned vegetables — like braised wood ear mushroom, Napa cabbage, red onion, and carrots that have been marinated in an aromatic oil. They’re garnished with scallion and toasted sesame seeds with a soy-ginger emulsion.
That sauce comes from an unexpected inspiration, too: For the restaurant’s one-year anniversary in September, Lee and his wife, Katie, took each other to Le Bernardin (155 W. 51st St., Manhattan) for the first time, where they ordered Dover sole with toasted almonds, wild mushrooms, and a soy lime emulsion, he recalls. "I really loved how velvety and creamy the sauce was. It was fun to see how an everyday ingredient for me, soy sauce, could be used in such a high level of French cooking."
Lee arrived in New York by way of Fairfax County, Virginia, where he grew up. There, he spent weekends exploring Manhattan’s Chinatown and connecting with his family’s Hong Kong heritage. So while dishes like chicken fried steak and the repertoire of Southern Foodways came across his plate, those weekends up North made an impression on him, propelling him to move to the city to work in New York restaurants like Barbuto and Golden Diner.
It took a while to get the hang of eating vegan, Lee admits. “At first I ate a lot of carbs.” His menu today shows more fluency, with a compelling assortment of vegetables that Eater critic Ryan Sutton, observed, “The vegetables at Fat Choy tend to taste like vegetables, and excellent ones at that. Whether they taste like actual Chinese or American classics is a different matter.”
The fast-casualness of the restaurant and the pandemic pivot allows room to experiment. Of the year-old restaurant, Lee says, “all of us have worked in omnivorous kitchens,” where vegan cooking is an outlier. As a result, “we’re constantly exploring,” and, “there’s no such thing as mistakes.” They’re opportunities for learning, or, in this case, inspiration for a dish.