As a restaurant reviewer, I observe an unrecorded rule: Avoid tangents about places other than the one under consideration. But my view of the new Yum Yum Noodle Shop at 275 Fair Street in Kingston cannot be explained without mentioning the Mizuna Café, the building’s previous inhabitant. For many years Mizuna was a laid-back little place run by cool-Daddy cook Bill Warnes, a Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts program graduate. He made excellent versions of café classics and the best omelets uptown, served with love by an Earth Mother waitress. Because it was so cheap, the Ulster Publishing staff ate there with some frequency, as did congressman Maurice Hinchey and his volunteers. According to www.opensecrets.org, Hinchey never spent more than an anomalous $60, and he probably fed ten people for it.
Price is not the only point where hi-fi Yum Yum stands in contrast to lo-fi Mizuna. The former cafeterialike space is unrecognizable. It seems bigger and brighter, with a sleekness and a slickness to it, like a high-end chain restaurant. Indeed, it is the second link in a chain: Its progenitor is in Woodstock. Both are owned by Nina Moeys-Paturel and Pierre-Luc Moeys, of high-end modern Mediterranean restaurant Oriole 9, and partner Erica A. Mahlkuch. To lock in the metaphor once and for all, one wall of the bathroom is chain link, with a few keyless padlocks clasped to it. A photograph on the wall suggests that diners can deposit their old Masters here without penalty.
Back in the main room, most dining is done at long, shiny, blond wooden tables with matching backless benches, illuminated by low-slung silver lights resembling overturned woks. Topography ranges regarding the remaining seating: There are a high-top table, a red-walled alcove, a few street-gazing perches and stools around the bar, which produces $9 lemongrass mojitos. One wall is brick; one wall is green with the silhouettes of multiracial diners placed at bench height, as if they’re eating beside you. An unseen sound system plays “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae (one suspects an iPod). Instead of a cash register, waitresses carry handheld point-of-sale devices, just like in the Apple Store.
Where Mizuna downplayed the skill behind the skillet, Yum Yum dresses up Asian street food for a night out on the town. A glance at the menu tells me that the noodle soup, for “1 person bowl,” is $10. This hurts my feelings, because a big soup with hand-pulled noodles and anonymous balls of protein will set me back $4 in Chinatown and as little as 20 baht in Thailand (67 cents). But eat the noodle soup I must, owing to the second unspoken rule of restaurant reviewing: If the food is featured in the name, it must be summoned to the table.
Yum Yum soothes my pricing pout by working very hard for the money. All of the ingredients taste fresh and top-of-the line, especially a well-seared salmon filet atop a tangle of thin white rice noodles in brown dashi/miso broth. That’s just one of 96 possible permutations (caveat lector: I do my own math). You may choose broth, protein and noodle. There are vegetarian broth, curry/coconut, pork/chicken and dashi/miso; chicken, salmon, beef, tofu, pork and seitan; ramen, udon, soba, rice.
Dashi is a Japanese cooking stock with a seaweed or dried fish (or both) base, and here, matched with miso, it is lovely, pungent, flavorful. The curry/coconut base, paired with chicken and ramen, fell victim to the Broth Phenomenon, a real-time parabola of taste. You know what I mean: When you eat stock or broth, you notice the flavor as it hits your tongue and again as you’re swallowing, but it tastes kind of hollow while it’s sloshing around your mouth in between. This was remedied by a generous squirt of Sriracha, the fire-engine chili sauce standing beside the cluster of chopsticks on each table, which made it very good indeed. Assign the chopsticks with your most proficient hand to pinch the noodles while the other hand scoops up the broth with the soupspoon provided.
Open pork buns ($7) are in the Momofuku style. They look like children’s mittens folded over thick slices of crispy pork belly. They are excellent: melt-in-your-mouth fatty, with a tamarind-colored paste (perhaps tamarind) and house-made cucumber pickles. I am of the opinion that the pork bun is one of the world’s perfect foods.
One of the day’s specials was Banh Mi ($8 – there I go getting my feelings hurt all over again), one of the most famous products of French colonialism: a complex Vietnamese sandwich on a traditional crispy baguette. Pâté, pork, cilantro, pickles, carrots, cucumbers, condiments – you can get one for $2.50 in most American cities. But this was not like that: The bread was thicker, ciabatta-shaped, with a few sesame seeds stuck to its bottom, toasted until a li’l bit of delicious blackness appeared (there is obviously some hot grill action happening back in that open kitchen). The pork was similarly seared, topped with aioli, mixed tender greens, pickled cucumbers and Napa cabbage. It was smoky and succulent.
That brings us to dessert. Our waitress apologized: The only dessert remaining was guava cheesecake ($6). No apology necessary! It was incredibly good, with a vibrant layer of red guava goo on top and the kind of crust that’s more metamorphic than sedimentary (pastry versus cookie crumb). In between the layers was light classic cheesecake: pure perfection.
The Yum Yum Noodle Shop in Uptown Kingston is located at 275 Fair Street. The hours are Monday through Saturday from 11:30 am -10 pm.