Brooklyn Wok Shop opened two and a half months ago in the notoriously hip and culinarily erudite neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. The restaurant’s most popular dish is General Tso’s chicken.
A preference for the most ordinary of Chinese-American takeout staples could seem peculiar in a neighborhood whose denizens thrive on food like shrimp with house-cured lardo at Betto restaurant or sunchoke soup with pickled shallot, fried rosemary and brandied cherries at Diner. However, Chinese takeout classics are what you’re supposed to get at Brooklyn Wok Shop, where the chicken specialty is on the menu for $10.50, along with typical beef and broccoli for $11.50 — $12.50 with a fried egg on top — and wonton soup for $12.50.
The dishes are served in a 60-seat modern urban restaurant with blond wood slats for walls and 1950s and ’60s pop music playing on the sound system.
The average per-person check ranges from $22 to $26, according to chef-owner Edric Har.
Unlike the operators of many of the modern Asian restaurants opening these days, Edric Har, who runs Wok Shop with his wife Melissa, isn’t trying to update Chinese classics — he’s just trying to make the classics themselves taste good and use the best ingredients he can.
The meats Har uses are free of antibiotics and hormones. He uses hanger steak for his beef with Chinese broccoli, and the $12.75 stewed beef soup with aromatic spices and bok choy — more of a Chinatown specialty than Chinese takeout — is made with short ribs. The $3 egg tart is made with a French pâte sucrée crust.
Har uses a conventional Western stove in the kitchen, not woks, because although he is a Chinese-American, his background is in American fine dining; he worked his way up in such New York City establishments as Veritas, Cru and Le Bernardin.
He later became a personal chef for a wealthy financier, and after the stock market crashed he opened his own catering company. “That was pretty poor timing,” he said, “but it was great that I had no overhead, so I didn’t lose much investment — I just didn’t make any money.” He added, semi-ironically, “So I figured opening a restaurant would make more sense.”
But so far, so good, the couple said.
“I’m really happy with what I do. I just do what I do and put things on plates. Nothing has to be at right angles or anything like that,” Edric Har said. “I have my cooking history, but I didn’t want to do that type of cooking. I want to be a guy in the neighborhood with regular customers. They appreciate it and they understand what they’re getting.”
Melissa Har’s family runs Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Fla., but this is the couple’s first restaurant, and they’re learning to roll with the punches.
A positive write-up in the New York Daily News praising Har’s “pliant egg noodles, generously stuffed wontons and melt-in-your-mouth roast pork” brought business from as far away as New Jersey and Staten Island. The new clientele, however, had different expectations, which prompted a decision to switch from fast-casual service to table service.
The restaurant has also experienced pushback for its prices. “That’s been an uphill battle for us,” he said. “For some reason people don’t want to compare us to the Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood. They want to compare us to the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown and Flushing, and that’s comparing apples and oranges,” he said, noting that some of the Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood are more expensive than Brooklyn Wok Shop.
“I mean, people will drop $15 on a hamburger — and that’s ground meat,” he said.
Still, the couple said the restaurant is finding its legs and developing loyal clientele.
“This neighborhood’s been really great,” Edric Har said. “We have regulars coming back over and over again.”
“Before, we used to get really sensitive about it when people complained,” Melissa Har said. “But now I realize they might be the kind of people who complain about everything.”