Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Peppercorn Kitchen for some Asian comfort food on Mercer Street.
Located in the heart of NYU territory and already busy with back-to-schoolers, Peppercorn Kitchen is a sleek new Sichuan spot that specializes in those bowls of "spicy numbing hot" soup, malatang. The space itself is warmly lit, welcoming, and well positioned to capture a piece of the booming Asian-comfort-food market in this part of town.
This is a counter service restaurant with nice long frontage on Mercer Street, but with barely any depth. The only tables are a pair of two tops under a neon sign, a collection of neutral-toned throw pillows and a row of succulents adding personality to the nook. Everyone else gets one of the dozen or so streamlined stools at the wide, windowed counter. Take out will clearly play a big role here.
The servers are welcoming, and the owners are around to answer specific menu questions. There's no bathroom, which is inconvenient but understandable in such a small space. Borderline unacceptable, though, is the lack of available drinking water because they "haven't figured out how to do it yet."
The Peppercorn Kitchen menu is brief but well focused. The Mala Tang is offered in a build-your-own-bowl fashion, with Vegetable as your base. This is a hearty mix of crunchy, chewy stuff that can include—it's up to you!—lotus root, wood ear and enoki mushrooms, thick strips of tofu skin, bok choy, glass noodle, and broccoli. The broth is a rich, peppery chicken stock set to your requested degree of spiciness; the middle level, "Spicy," had plenty of kick but didn't overwhelm. Note: you can make anything vegetarian upon request.
Meat comes next, if you want. I had the Sliced Lamb, which reads more like well-done beef and didn't add much beyond texture and general sense of "protein" to the party. Spam, served chunky, seems like the savvier choice here. There are also four side dishes available, and all bring something different to the table. The pork and cabbage Dumplings in Chili Oil are pretty straightforward, but they're cooked with care and the sweet housemade soy sauce on top cuts the funk and garlic nicely.
The Sichuan Silken Tofu is excellent, the creamy bean curd is served warm with tiny, crunchy soybeans and—secret ingredient alert—flecks of intensely-flavored bean paste. Sichuan Fries, cooked soft without being mushy and heavily seasoned with cumin, peppercorn, and chili, satisfy at least three cravings at once. Sichuan Jelly arrives in a cup with a straw, though it's thick enough to eat with a spoon and, really, that's the only way to get balanced bites. This dish is cold, it's sweet (thanks to raisins and brown sugar), it's refreshing, and it works both as a dessert and as a beverage.
Peppercorn Kitchen offers a tight menu of quick, filling, amply-flavored comfort food in an environment that feels both hip and homey. The NYU community already seem to have embraced the place, but note that it also makes for a nice pre- or post-Angelika option.
Peppercorn Kitchen is located at 289 Mercer Street between 8th Street and Waverly Place, and is open weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Sundays from 11;30 to 2:30 and again from 6 until 9 p.m. Closed Saturdays. (917-522-1600; peppercornkitchen.nyc)