Some people deem gossip immoral, even destructive. I find it (within reason, of course) to be as stimulating and restorative as a bowl of spicy noodle soup. And so I was delighted to partake of both, recently, at Public Village, a new restaurant on the Lower East Side. After all, I was only following directions: the tagline of the place, as displayed on its Web site, is “Eat, drink and gossip like Sichuanese.” My lunch date and I—an old friend who happens to be a native of Sichuan Province—had a lot to catch up on.
The best menu item for gossiping, we agreed, was the house-made beef jerky, dehydrated strips of eye of round coated in five-spice powder, sesame seeds, and crisp snips of dried chili, small enough to be popped into your mouth between juicy revelations and piquant enough to match the emotional rush with a physical one. My friend and I were the only people sitting in the wooden pavilion that the tiny restaurant installed on the street out front, but, had we been worried about eavesdroppers, or stricter social distancing, taking our jerky to go would have been a cinch: it comes in a vacuum-sealed packet. (Enjoy it with a cup of “Mom’s homestyle plum juice,” an intensely smoky brew that helps to “detox,” and cleanse your system if not your conscience.)
Other dishes require a bit more attention. Gesticulate wildly while pinching a smashed cucumber between your chopsticks and you might end up with a splatter of neon chili oil on your shirt; pack a plastic clamshell of crunchy lotus root in your tote bag too casually and you could later find a garlic-scented puddle pooling in the depths. Luckily, Public Village’s cooking is worthy of quiet reverence and thoughtful contemplation.
Fat white mung-bean noodles, made from scratch on the premises, are buttery in texture, so light that they seem to dissolve on the tongue and yet beguilingly sturdy, standing up to a generous portion of unctuous and fiery sauce. Cubes of ruddy braised drunken beef, scented with cumin and star anise, come scattered, along with vibrant-green stems of Chinese broccoli, atop a tangle of thin wheat noodles dyed black with squid ink. A gentle mash of yellow split peas is folded, with crumbles of ground pork, into a mix of ribbony egg and spinach noodles; a Seussian puff of batter coating crispy pork strips, tingly with a dusting of Sichuan peppercorn, gives way to tender meat marbled with rendered fat.
So much of the theatre of restaurant-going has been quashed by the pandemic, but Public Village, which had a soft opening in March, just before the shutdown, and then relaunched in May for takeout and delivery (the pavilion is seat-yourself), still manages to be charming. A sign out front instructs you to ring a bell and wait, beside a glass case displaying flaky rainbow-patterned pastries filled with purple taro paste, for an employee to emerge. You might catch a glimpse of the place’s mascot of sorts—Kaya, an adorable corgi who belongs to Kiyomi Wang, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, who was born and raised in Chengdu. (The other owner, Karen Song, is from northeast China.)
Kaya the corgi is named for kaya the jam, a sweet coconut-and-egg concoction ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, where it’s often spread thickly on toast. You can find kaya toast just around the corner at Kopitiam, a beloved Malaysian café co-owned by the chef Kyo Pang, to whom Wang is married. Like Kopitiam, Public Village fits seamlessly into the micro-neighborhood, a pocket of the Lower East Side just east of Chinatown that’s sometimes called Dimes Square, after the endlessly mimicked California-style café Dimes. The area has become a gold mine of restaurants (including Cervo’s, Scarr’s Pizza, and Wu’s Wonton King, all holding strong for now) that feel both indispensably timeless and unmistakably of the moment—not least because of their ability to adapt. (Dishes $6-$15.)??