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Dining Out

Using his noodle (and dumpling!)

Chef Tang melds flavors in creative ways

East by Northeast Thick-cut noodles in a spicy beef broth with chunks of beef shank, celery root, parsnip, and a poached egg. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 10, 2010

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A young Asian chef opens a restaurant. He has spent time in influential kitchens around the city. He trained in French cooking, but his menu focuses on noodles, dumplings, and pork belly buns. He has more than a passing obsession with pigs, which are delivered regularly from regional farms. The comparison is inevitable: Chef Phillip Tang and the new East by Northeast in Cambridge have much in common with New York’s famed, and famously foulmouthed, David Chang and his meat-centric Momofuku restaurants.

This is consequential only if you are among those who follow the restaurant scene the way others follow sports, or if you’d like a frame of reference for what you are about to eat. For one thing, thanks in part to Chang, half the country’s chefs are obsessed with pigs and get them delivered regularly from regional farms. It’s hog hell out there.

For another, Tang’s food has more soul than swagger. It feels hand-hewn. More than meat, it is a showcase for local vegetables, and for dough. Noodles, breads, and dumplings are hand-rolled in the kitchen. The knife work on, say, a salad of celery root and apple is plenty precise - crisp little batons of vegetables stacked with shreds of poached chicken, the ingredients knitted together by a tangy sesame-mustard sauce: I taste China, I taste France. But each blobby little rice noodle, each tender-chewy-translucent-perfect dumpling skin, is individual and irregular. They are a reminder that someone made this food for you.

Tang has worked locally at Lumiere, T.W. Food, and Hungry Mother; his family runs A&J, a well-known dim sum restaurant with two locations in the D.C. suburbs. He opened East by Northeast in January, in a space on the fringe of Inman Square that seems to attract deliciousness. It previously housed the Italian stunner Benatti, and before that the friendly, homey Portuguese O Cantinho. East by Northeast is a cute little box of a restaurant with persimmon-colored walls, a wee bar up front, and several blackboards with the day’s specials written on them. Benatti was expensive, and often empty. East by Northeast hits a friendlier price point with its small plates, and there is frequently a wait for a table.

When that’s the case, wedge yourself against a wall, try not to covet thy neighbor’s seat, and munch on addictive curry-dusted carrot and sweet potato chips to tide yourself over. Their salt, spice, and sweetness pair well with a cocktail of bourbon, apple cider, cinnamon, and star anise - more serious and less autumnal than it sounds. There are exactly four cocktails available here; one of rum, house-made ginger soda, and lime is good, too, although on one occasion so light on rum we wonder whether they’ve forgotten to add it. There are 10 beers, and a house white and house red, both Italian. Cilantro-lime soda is a refreshing nonalcoholic option.

The menu is as carefully curated as the cocktail list, though the specials board nearly doubles its size. There are a few snacks: those chips; candied pecans sent into the stratosphere with lashings of black and Sichuan pepper; boiled peanuts like those served at Hungry Mother, but here treated with five spice powder and smoked salt.

Then there are three lovely salads and a few vegetable dishes, such as sauteed kale and sweet potato fritters. A salad of napa cabbage is simple and perfect, composed of crunchy greens, citrus segments, and slivers of shallot touched with honey and rice vinegar, topped with hot-pink rounds of watermelon radish. It’s balanced and refreshing. So is a dish of sweet-sour pickled vegetables: half-moons of daikon, rectangles of rutabaga, and wedges of beet.

A “breads’’ category comprises scallion pancakes and mantou, or steamed buns, filled with crispy pork belly. On one visit, these are perfect. The pork is nicely crisp at the edges and melts in the mouth, the bun fluffy and mildly sweet. Another time the bun is slightly tough and the pork overly crunchy, sharp and hard to chew.

For dumplings, you’ll find pork and shrimp, but they’re not standard dim sum fare. The pork filling incorporates butternut squash, lending an interesting but also jarring sweetness. The shrimp dumplings are served in a vibrant carrot-ginger broth with toasted seaweed, the flavors almost Japanese. Whatever is inside them, the dumplings’ beauty is always skin deep. The supple wrappers are everything you want dumpling wrappers to be.

Noodles come in two varieties: short pillows and long ribbons. The former are made from rice and are nearly gnocchi-like, served either with chicken, daikon, shiitake mushrooms, and a house-made version of Chinese XO sauce, or with shiitakes, kale, carrot, and sweet bean paste.

They are good, but they pale beside the flat, thick wheat flour version. These are silky and luxurious and lengthy, as chewy as a stick of gum. They have heft. They’re deep. They come with pork ragout and marinated sunchokes, or in a miso vegetable broth with a poached egg (for another dollar, you can add an egg to the other versions as well). But it’s when they are served in a slightly spicy beef broth scented with anise, alongside chunks of tender beef shank, celery root, and parsnip, that I could eat them every week. I could eat them right now. I could them again immediately after I finish eating them. They’re really good.

And that’s it for the regular menu. There’s no dessert here. But there are specials, and they sound so tempting you may want to order them all. (East by Northeast recommends ordering three to four dishes per person and sharing; two to three would probably suffice.)

Mapo tofu is very loosely mapo tofu. Deconstructed, it features a vegetarian’s dearest dream: a square of smoked silken tofu that tastes sort of like bacon. Then the dream is dashed. The tofu is topped with a smooth, savory, slightly spicy sauce made from veal. Crunchy toasted rice adds texture, and emerald green garlic chive puree lends visual appeal if not much taste.

A fried daikon cake, crisp on the outside and warm, gooey, and potato-like on the inside, is served with bits of house-made jowl bacon and a slaw of apple and napa cabbage. It’s pure comfort food. So-called golden pearl meatballs look more like sea urchins. Spheres of pork are rolled in rice and fried till the prickly orbs brown a bit, then served with a very garlicky brown sauce that lacks the depth of other condiments here. The pork could use bolder seasoning as well.

This dish is the exception at East by Northeast, where sweet, sour, and spice exist in harmony, and the service matches the food. On one visit, our waitress pairs sugar and vinegar, as sassy as she is solicitous. When a guest mentions they’re celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday, our waitress deadpans, “Yeah, it’s my 30th birthday too.’’

Tang’s food is carefully crafted, well thought out, with a handmade aesthetic and an artful sensibility. No comparisons necessary.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

EAST BY NORTHEAST

1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-876-0286. www.exnecambridge.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Restaurant is wheelchair accessible, bathroom is not.

Prices Small plates $4-$10.

Hours Tue-Sun 5-10 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest Celery root and poached chicken salad, pickled vegetables, crispy pork belly with mantou bread, shrimp dumplings, thick-cut noodles with beef shank and spicy beef broth, mapo tofu.

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