What is Mahjong? Maybe someone can explain it to me. All I know is it was a game my grandma used to play “with the girls”. But now, I’m suddenly into it because I am, literally, obsessed with Mahjong Dumplings.
The Upper East Side is my hometown. And I always thought that was pretty cool. I mean, it’s not everyone who gets a TV show made about their hometown, right? Except, suddenly, it’s not so cool to everyone else. When I was growing up, the UES was the place to be. There really were meat lockers in Meat Packing, and going to the Village meant getting the car out of the garage and going for a “trip.” We went to Brooklyn, again, in a car, to buy vegetables from an organic co-op. But these were all outposts; the center was uptown.
Now, I can’t get anyone to meet me uptown for dinner! “There’s nothing to do uptown!” How ridiculous and nonsensical. But, I guess, uptown doesn’t have what downtown is full of: small, upstart young restaurants with a delicious, gimmicky menu, and a line down the street. That’s true. We have more stately manors or cozy neighborhood corners. Until now. Enter Mahjong Dumpling.
On Second Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets is a little downtown outpost. The bar is decorated with mahjong tiles inlaid in glass. The walls are papered with cigarette-rolled magazine pages. Funky bamboo chandaliers hang from the ceiling, and the place can’t seat more than 50 people. Very downtown. And then there’s the menu: it’s like dim sum went around the world in eighty days. The left side of the menu is starters and noodle bowls, and the right side is all dumplings.
I called up my own little dumpling, Mr. English, to tell him all about my Mahjong dining experience, but then I realized: all I talk to him about is food, and dogs. So I spared him, thinking “my readers will want to know about this.” I walked in with my two best friends on the Upper East, thinking we’d have a little five o’clock snack. Maybe try three or four types of dumplings. We wound up ordering three times, tasting all but one kind of dumpling, plus pickles, pork buns, udon soup, and shaved ice. Then, I went back the next day for lunch, and tried even more. Before I get to the food, I have to say how much I appreciate that a restaurant of just a few tables, with such a creative, and truly good, menu opened uptown, when it could so easily have fit in downtown. I think uptown is on the up and up, poised to reclaim the title of best New York neighborhood. But what I love about Mahjong is I get all the quaint chic of downtown, all the great food, all the fun, but it’s not overcrowded, it’s not overly trendy, and in no way does it feel exclusive. You don’t have to wear a pompadour to fit in here, because it’s the food that steals the attention. What I love about my hometown is how easy it is, how truly casual despite its reputation for prestige. It just doesn’t try too hard, and neither does Mahjong. It knows it’s got a good thing: like any cool kid, it’s not going to follow the crowd. It will let others come and find it.
I love the playful names. I love the relatively inexpensive prices. And I love the options. You can spend a lot, or a little. You can pig out, or get some very light dishes. And, when was the last time you got free refills? The only thing that disappointed me is that they were fresh out of apple pie and cheddar dumplings both times I was there! All I know is, grandma, I’m taking up Mahjong.
Run Forrest: shrimp / carrot / ginger / scallion / panang curry sauce
This is my number one or number two favorite dumpling (it’s really hard to commit at Mahjong!). It’s almost like a traditional shrimp dumpling or shumai that you would find a Sunday lunch dim sum, but that sauce is so creamy, and so flavorful, it started licking it off my chopsticks after the dumplings were devoured.
Red Lantern: chorizo / paprika / sweet roasted yellow pepper sauce / charred corn salsa
Amazing. A great example of how to correctly apply fusion: a Spanish dumpling. The dumpling is crisp, the chorizo is full of that paprika flavor, and the sweet pepper sauce is so unexpected and Spanish and delicious. The charred corn salsa is another unexpected but perfect flourish.
Boardwalk Crab: crispy maryland style peekytoe crab / light mustard aioli
Okay, maybe this one is my favorite. It’s like a crab cake in a crispy shell. And I love seeing the little bit of oil separating from the aioli: means it’s homemade. Even my friend who hates crab thought this was one of the best ones. And who can beat the originality?
The Fresh Prince: grilled beef short rib / pepper / onion / aged provolone cheese
“In west Philadelphia, born and raised.” This is a Philly Cheesesteak dumpling. Genius. Chunks of short rib and peppers and onions in this almost mini-spring roll dumpling, with another sauce that I licked of my chopsticks: aged provolone cheese sauce, with just a hint of spice and spiciness-maybe nutmeg and chili?
The Maine Event: lobster / chive / clam chowder sauce / oyster crackers
I love that there’s basically nothing inside that wonton besides lobster. The taste is pure, and sweet. The clam chowder sauce is so different from the soy sauce you’d expect–the polar opposite. And it works. And the oyster crackers? I love a plate with a sense of humor, and this dish is composed almost like a snack off a tasting menu, instead of a plate of dumplings.
The Big Easy: wild mushroom / lotus root / carrot / scallion / cilantro
This is the best vegetarian dumpling on the menu, and an example of a more traditional Asian approach gone right. It’s light, and the sweet-tangy dipping sauce makes it the perfect bite if what you crave is traditional Asian dumplings.
Traditional Monkey: pork / chive / tofu / ginger / sweet thai chili sauce
Another great traditional dumpling. I don’t love pork dumplings, but I love the freshness of this one. It’s light, and I’m not scared of what mystery meat might be inside it.
A La Farm: spinach / mushroom / eggplant / sundried tomatoes / ricotta / truffle oil / parmesan
Another vegetarian option, but the weaker of the two. I didn’t taste the truffle oil; instead, I detected a sort of misplaced hint of wasabi. This wasn’t my favorite, but I certainly love the idea of it, and if I were going vegetarian, I wouldn’t shy away.
Mom’s Style: braised pulled beef / balsamic caramelized onions
My least favorite was also possibly the most creative and the most beautiful. If you like meat and broth, you will like this. I would liken it almost to an Asian meat-broth noodle soup, while I was expected more of a pot-au-feu.
Starters, Noodles, and Desserts
Cucumber Pickles: wasabi / ginger / garlic / rice wine
I would come here just for this. They are my favorite things on the menu; they’re amazing. Fresh cucumbers, just marinated in the mixture long enough to just turn pickle. Like, an Asian new pickle. You can pick out each flavor component: the heady heat of the wasabi, the spice of the ginger, the pungency of the garlic, and the sweet rice wine. Amazing. I think my partners in dumpling crime summed it up best: “These are really good.”
Steamed Pork Buns: crispy berkshire pork belly / hoisin / cilantro / cucumber slaw
These seem to be popular here, and for good reason. The hoisin is so thick and fresh and sweet and pungent. The pork is big hunks of crispy meatiness. And the slaw is so light and fresh, and the bun to pillowy and soft. It’s like a lovely dream.
Cold Sesame Noodle: soba noodles / cucumber / scallion / cilantro / carrots
Nothing like the thick and globby (if delicious) Chinese takeout sesame noodles. This is very fresh, almost garden-like, and flavorful. Perfect for a hot day. I wished we’d ordered two, because this may be the only overpriced dish on the menu, at $8.
Black Sesame Ice Cream: housemade / 2 scoops
It tasted like frozen, creamy halvah in a bowl. Not too sweet. Just right. With that perfect fluffy homemade ice creamy consistency.
Tuna Bites: sashimi tuna / nori / ginger / wasabi / bean sprouts
I’m a bit mystified by these, because the outside nori is battered and crisp, but the inside tuna is completely raw. With a little bean sprout salad, and wasabi sauce on the plate, this is probably the most well-to-do, tra-la-la dish. I missed the soy sauce, but they were excellent, and very beautiful.
Mandarin Flower: yu choy / oyster sauce / sesame seeds
Perhaps the most dietetic thing on the menu! Steamed Asian broccoli topped with truly fantastic oyster sauce (although, to me it tasted just like the hoisin sauce from the pork buns), and the perfect crunch of sesame seeds. The only way to improve it would be to stir-fry those broccolis!
Selling Ice to Eskimos: shaved ice / seasonal fruit
Like an Asian granita, this shaved ice is covered in lychee syrup, toasted coconut, and chunks of pineapple. It’s big enough for 4, and it’s not too sweet and refreshing.
Thick Rice Noodle: sliced beef / shiitakes / scallion / beef broth / lemongrass
This is not my cup of tea, or broth, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like it. The beef was very tender, in great large chunks that fell apart in that perfect way when you bit into it. The soup very full, and meaty, and flavorful. Just too meaty for me.
Next time I go, I have to try the crispy tofu with rice flour, toasted coconut, and chili oil. And the cocktails, which have ingredients like yuzu bitters, chili infused vodka, aloe vera, and jasmine tea.
1542 Second Avenue (80th & 81st Streets)
So sorry about the dark bottom right corner in these photos. My lens cracked, and I just noticed it at Mahjong. Apologies!