"During the '80s when I was born, Shanghai wasn't nearly as developed as it is today: instead of skyscrapers, long tang were everywhere. I spent my childhood within these alleys' grey brick walls, going to and from school, and playing with other kids who live close," chef Cheung Yuchun says when talking about his new restaurant, Little Alley, a translation of "弄堂" or "long tang," a network of alleyways in Shanghai. "I remember my favorite game back then was hide and seek, because the interconnected alleyways of long tang makes it like a maze. In fact, when you live in long tang, everyone knows each other; people are so much closer and more intimate back then."
The intimacy Yuchun speaks of spans many facets, from physical proximity to the sharing of food among families. "I came from a family of chefs and restauranteurs; there was nothing more satisfying than smelling a delicious meal a couple alleys away and running back to home," Yuchun recalls. "Whenever I look back to my childhood, long tang and my family's dishes immediately came to mind."
Yuchun highlights the "red stewing" technique as a hallmark of Shanghainese cuisine that he'll be employing in various dishes on the menu at Little Alley. The process involves heavily-seasoned proteins browned and then cooked low and slow for several hours. "Many describe the flavor as bold, but serious Shanghainese diners actually care more about layers and subtlety," Yuchun says. "To me, the flavor that comes from my red brewing dishes are layers of bright taste of sweet and salty that never overshadows the freshness of the ingredient itself."
Little Alley Lion's Head (courtesy Little Alley)
The chef points to the Dong Po Pork and Little Alley Lion's Head as two dishes that exemplify this process most distinctly. The prior is a layered pork belly dish, while the latter is Yuchun's version of the classic meatball dish. "I added a salty duck egg in the middle in our version which adds more texture to an otherwise purely fluffy meatball," Yuchun notes. "I don't think anyone can make Lion's Head like this."
Soup dumplings in several varieties, radish puffs, vegetable potsticks and Shanghai shu mai are a few of the chef's dim sum offerings. The restaurant will also serve vegetable dishes including Rainbow mushrooms with peppers and cashews in oyster sauce; Braised Tofu with Crab Meat; Mongolian Beef; and Shanghai noodles and rice cakes, both stir-fried.
Should the need arise to make a quick phone call during or after your meal, there's a phone booth with a fully operational—and old fashioned-looking—phone inside.
"We had it specially made not just to remind people of an older, more intimate lifestyle associated with long tang, but also to provide an opportunity for people to actually step in the past and call someone they love or miss," Yuchun explains. "We believe that food is attached with emotions, and we created a nostalgic setting that might remind many Shanghainese people of their childhood home far away. It feels so much closer to call than to text, and we hope the telephone booth can help someone re-connect with their past."
Little Alley opens June 21st at 550 3rd Avenue, 646-998-3976; littlealley.nyc