New York City is an ever changing landscape. Finding unique spaces that embrace tradition, time and classic flavors is becoming more and more difficult as our neighborhoods disappear. This past Wednesday evening, myself and a group of fellow writers and food enthusiasts were taken on a journey by Chef, Writer, Television Host, and Global Ambassador of Renaissance Hotels Andrew Zimmern. The evening was created to encourage business travelers to experience “5 to 9” with as much vigor as they approach their “9 to 5″. Titled “An Unusual Business Dinner”, this was an exciting & unpretentious foray into what is to come for their “Global Day of Discovery” in May.
The night began with a Happy Hour at none other than the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel. The guests and I were greeted by our Host Dara and Andrew Zimmern. Now just a quick note that Andrew Zimmern is as kind, gracious, interesting and humble as you would expect him to be. As a long time fan of “Bizarre Foods” I was particularly excited for this occasion.
As the guests and I mingled over wine, we kicked off the evening with a Bar Ritual. Gathered around a punch ball we awed as the prepared Smoked Bourbon cocktail was smoked right in front of us as it was ladled into good glasses. The beverage was lightly sweet with hints of Ancho and Poblano Pepper that left a nice speck of heat on the back of my throat in contrast to the Cacao Nibs which rounded out the flavor with a nice depth. I’m always looking for new Bourbon based cocktails and this was one of the more peculiar ones that I’ve had in quite some time.
After we finished our beverages at the hotel, we were transported to our mystery destination called Nom Wha Tea Parlor. Nom Wha Tea Parlor has been a family owned Chinatown institution since 1920. It started primarily as a bakery, noted for it’s Mooncakes and then expanded into Dim Sum over the years. As Andrew Zimmern noted, there is not a time when in New York where he hasn’t made it a point to visit this spot and I can see why- it is truly a gem.
Andrew and the current owner Wilson Tang; who is nephew of the original owner Wally, welcomed us when we walked in and gave more insight into this popular staple. As he explained, not much has changed in it’s existence. They still have the same tin ceiling, floor tiles, exhaust hood and funky looking saucer lighting sconces that had been a fixture of his childhood. What has changed is it’s growth as a brand. The restaurant has expanded into other locations- one in Philadelphia and one in Nolita.
After Wally’s introduction, we were introduced to “Chef” who for the past 45 years has been in the kitchen making food he truly loves. Andrew and Chef were kind enough to then share with us a demo of how some of the fine Dim Sum is made. This is truly rare as no one gets this experience at Nom Wha unless you work in the kitchen. It was incredible to see how Chef quietly and efficiently assembled Shumai, which meat mixture was simple in it’s conception and not lean by any means. As they moved onto the Egg Rolls, Andrew Zimmern noted the difference in the delicate wrap which was almost crepe like. This alone set it apart from any other Egg Roll I’ve encountered.
As the demo concluded, us diners sat down to two long dining tables with our menus for the evening which was an assortment of Andrew’s long time favorites. The first to arrive was the House Special Pan Fried Dumpling. which our host noted they were out of this world and the flavor comes from the simplicity in it- no scallion or ginger in the mix. The second was the steamed Shrimp and Snow Pea Leaf Dumplings. These had a lightness and almost peanut essence that was particularly appealing.
What came out next was easily the best Steamed Pork Bun I have ever had. It was nothing short of a revelation. Seriously all others can take a seat and notes. The bun was light and filled with a rich pork meat and soft onions that had been stewed in a deep five spice sauce. Most pork buns veer off into overly sweet territory while here there was more emphasis on making the spice and pork shine instead of covering up its main star. While there was a sweetness, it was mellow. This is one of those things where you enjoy every single bite and do not rush. The pan fried Shrimp and Chive Dumplings that proceeded the buns were crispy with a strong garlicky flavor from the cut tops of the green chive, a truly classic Chinese flavor.
In celebrating the unusual we were then served Chicken Feet. This was my first time eating them and won’t be my last for certain. Sauteed in a traditional Five Spice Sauce with Peppers, I found them to be delectable. I was sucking the skin off each bit and picking the bones for the good fatty meat. The Shumai Chef came out and served us some of his best Shumai, which had pork and shrimp stuffed inside! The fattiness of the pork and Shrimp mixture really gave these a leg up on every other Shu Mai, I’ve had. Like honestly who wants a lean dumpling? No one that’s who well maybe a fit girl.
Rounding out the meal was the Fried Shrimp in Bean Curd Skins. A crunchy roll stuffed with Shrimp that almost resembled a dense meat cake like texture. They were up there with Pork Buns in the Dim Sum ranking of the evening. Something unusual that I wouldn’t of had if it wasn’t for this evening.
As we closed the evening, we joined in a traditional Tea Ceremony. Another bit of culture that I would’ve not been able to experience if it wasn’t for our gracious hosts. There is an interesting process which has a ton of delicateness involved. With the pouring and heating of the small kettle by dousing and flushing boiling water, they wash away the caffeine from the tea. The particular tea was “Iron Goddess” which was mixed with unroasted and roasted forms. They were lovely, floral and fragrant and the perfect palette cleanser for the evening.
As I left Nom Wha and I picked up my parting gift; one of their famous Mooncakes (which I later enjoyed with my partner); I reflected on this Business Unusual Dinner experience. This event successfully introduced me, a native New Yorker, to a new treasure in this city and a wonderful group of people. It was a nice reminder to slow down and relax and take in the strange and appreciate the unusual.
More info on their Global Day of Discovery: On Wednesday, May 17, 2017, all of the brand’s 160 Renaissance Hotels in 35 countries will join together on its sixth annual Global Day of Discovery to dare travelers to redefine the traditional “business brag” and discover the soul of neighborhoods around the globe. Renaissance Hotels offers guests the opportunity to discover exclusive evening experiences through its signature entertainment program including live music performances, culinary demonstrations, performance art, location-specific signature bar rituals, partnerships and more. Specific Global Day of Discovery activations will range per property. For more information, check out their official site.