All photos by Scott Lynch
Dec 8, 2021
Bonnie’s, the buzzy new spot from former Win Son chef, lives up to the hype
And it has a lot of hype to live up to: Calvin Eng nails it with his new Cantonese American restaurant in Williamsburg, inspired by his mom
You know that feeling when you walk into a brand new restaurant that has everyone excited, and there’s that giddy buzz in the air, every table filled with people delighted to be there? Like there’s nowhere in town you’d rather be at that moment? And then the food starts coming out and it’s even more astonishing than you might have imagined? That was Bonnie’s on Tuesday night, Calvin Eng’s newly-opened Cantonese American restaurant in Williamsburg.
Get your reservation in now. If you can.
The menu is loaded with instant genre-bending classics (Cantonese cacio e pepe, anyone?), but first some backstory: Chef-owner Eng is a Brooklyn native, born and raised in Bay Ridge. Bonnie’s is named after his mom, he says, “because everything I know about Cantonese food I learned from her, and through her.” Before opening Bonnie’s, Eng was a chef at the excellent Taiwanese-American restaurant Win Son, about three-quarters of a mile south of Bonnie’s. Before that, he opened Nom Wah Nolita with Wilson Tang, which proved to be a transformative experience.
“Honestly that’s when I really started to pursue Chinese food, because I was spending so much time in Chinatown,” he says. His grandparents lived on Bayard Street for more than 50 years. His mom lived there she first moved to the city in 1964. “Every weekend when I was a kid we would go visit. Growing up I hated it, because it was such a tiny, old apartment. But as I got older I finally wanted to learn more, and pursue this part of my heritage.”
Eng calls the food at Bonnie’s “Cantonese American” because, as he explains it, “at the end of the day all of the flavors in the dishes are going to be Cantonese, but there’s going to be influences—whether in the ingredients or the techniques—from all over the world. Everything on the menu has a story, and every story came naturally because it was literally just my ideas and background and upbringing all coming together in each dish. It’s all personal.”
Start with Eng’s dao gok, an ordinary-sounding dish—basically, a pile of Chinese long beans—that is anything but. The beans are snappy and bright, the fermented bean curd with garlic butter add further flavor and textural interest, and it’s all accompanied with hunks of deeply delicious Chinese donuts, or yao tio.
The wun tun en brodo puts a whole mess of beautifully constructed seafood dumplings in a citrus parmesan broth.
The creamy fuyu cacio e pepe mein is the most original version of the dish I’ve had, and just as flavorful, thanks to the fat, perfectly cooked noodles, the fermented bean curd bringing some funk, and no shortage of both the headliner ingredients.
There’s an entrée-sized bak chit gai, a tender hacked-up half chicken, poached and served cold with a chunky green chili ginger sauce on top and a mound of rice below. This comes with a cup of warm, rich “golden broth,” which you sip with each bite.
But the showstopper here is Eng’s yeung yu sang choi bao, a whole trout which he debones, mashes with shrimp and water chestnuts, then stuffs back in. It’s the most expensive thing on the menu by a considerable margin, but it easily feeds at least two, and it’s spectacular.
Other hits include the nostalgic char sui McRib, the salt and pepper squid with Chinese ranch, the clams with egg custard and the chrysanthemum green salad.
Then there are the desserts, which include the chow nai sundae, starring chunks of malted fried milk, ovaltine hot fudge, and buttered peanuts.
The space is done up pretty minimally in shades of black and white, with some standing room before the bar, an impressive six- to eight-top with a giant Lazy Susan near the front window. There is a row of tables heading past the kitchen, where you can catch Eng working the pass all night. It gets loud, what with all those hard surfaces, hip hop classics, and happy guests. There’s a full cocktail menu, including some non-alcoholic concoctions, as well as beer and wine. Outdoor seating will arrive in the spring.
In the meantime, this Bay Ridge kid couldn’t be more thrilled to have his own place in his home borough.
“From the start I knew I wanted to be in Brooklyn,” he says. “I didn’t even check out anything in Manhattan, even though during Covid the rents were great there, and sometimes even better. But for what I’m doing, I like being in Brooklyn way more.”
Bonnie’s is located at 398 Manhattan Avenue, at the corner Frost Street, and is currently open on Tuesday through Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
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