Modern restaurateurs have come up with all kinds of uses for their barroom draft systems beyond the usual umpteen types of beer. At a given location, what’s “on tap” these days could mean anything from bubbly prosecco and boozy Negronis to icy cold-brewed coffee and foamy lattes.
At the new Kings County Imperial restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which opened in July, there’s something else oozing from the spout. It’s dark, it’s silky, it’s brimming with umami and it’s splashed throughout half of the dishes on the dinner menu. We’re talking, of course, about soy sauce. The salty, savory condiment commonly found in sticky half-empty bottles next to the napkin dispenser at your typical neighborhood Chinese takeout is treated a little differently here. It receives prominent placement up at the bar alongside the rest of the featured fermented liquids, with its own separate tap line and its own distinctive tap handle – a funky wooden relic that one of the owners picked up from a Chinese monastery nearly two decades ago.
Yet despite the obvious novelty of it all, proprietors Josh Grinker and Tracy Jane Young suggest that pouring soy from the tap is more than just a gimmick; it’s about quality control. You know that bottle of Kikkoman that’s been lingering on your pantry shelf for ages? It hasn’t gone bad, necessarily, but oxidation over time has given it a slightly metallic taste, which you might not even notice. Until, that is, you compare it to the fresh stuff. “Putting it on tap, we have nitro that pulls the oxygen out, so it’s always a very, very fresh product, with no oxidization,” says Grinker.
Besides, this isn’t just any soy sauce. No, the stuff they’re pouring is advertised as “small-batch, handcrafted soy sauce,” imported by the restaurant’s sister company, Kings County Soy Works. Remember that old saying about the “slow boat to China”? Well, this stuff came in on the return trip. The restaurant has partnered with a family in southern China that’s been making soy sauce the old-fashioned way for four generations. “They use their ancestors’ aspergillus,” says Young, referring to the fungus used in the traditional soy sauce–brewing process. “So it’s like the sourdough starter of soy sauces, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
—Kings Co Imperial (@kingscoimperial), July 22, 2015
Grinker and Young originally tasted “probably 50 varieties” of the Liu family’s handmade soy sauces, “but it took us some time to find the flavor profile that we wanted,” she notes. Because the pair insisted on avoiding preservatives other than salt and natural fermentation, striking the right balance between salinity and depth of flavor was tricky, they say. Eventually, they settled on a recipe. “It’s five ingredients,” says Grinker. “Soy beans, wheat, salt, seaweed and licorice extract.” The inky fluid presently flowing from the tap represents the first 1,000-gallon batch, which began brewing a whole year ago. Right now, halfway around the world, the second batch is fermenting inside big porcelain vats sitting out in the hot sun. In fact, Young is scheduled to return to China shortly to check on its progress. Ultimately, Grinker and Young plan to bottle their Kings County branded soy sauce for retail sale, likely priced somewhere in the range of $12 to $15 a pop.
It’s a time-intensive enterprise, to be sure; the soy sauce can take upwards of 12 to 18 months to ferment, and it takes about another month to ship overseas from China to New York. But ask Grinker and Young and they’ll tell you that all the travel and effort is worth it. “It’s the backbone of Chinese cooking,” says Young. Nineteen of the 35 dishes on the restaurant’s opening menu make use of the house soy sauce in one form or another, either in the preparation or served on the side. It appears in everything from the Chinese ketchup and Sichuan cucumber salad to steamed whole fish and steel pot beef. When the restaurant begins serving dim sum brunch on Saturday, August 8, beverage director Richard Murphy, formerly of Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Channel, will debut a new Bloody Mary recipe seasoned with the house’s special Chinese elixir.
“Me and Tracy have had this dream for so long,” Grinker says of the pair’s 65-seat restaurant on Skillman Avenue. The space is a former coffee shop that’s been completely gut-renovated and given a whole new look by noted restaurant designer Ian McPheely, the same guy behind such stylish New York hangouts as Balthazar and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. (He also happens to be one of Grinker’s drinking buddies. “We’re paying him in soy sauce,” Young jokes.) The kitchen is outfitted in shiny custom Chinese-made appliances, including a two-ton wok stove made of solid steel and a steamer that “can put out 400 dumplings an hour,” Grinker says proudly. “That steamer is too big for this restaurant, let’s put it that way. We should be in a dim sum house that seats 500 people.”
It’s a good setup to achieve the sort of technique-driven, real-deal Chinese food the duo are going for. “You will not find one thing coming out of this kitchen that isn’t Chinese technique — nothing,” says Grinker. “You might find an ingredient you wouldn’t have in China, but that’s also faithful to the Chinese philosophy. In China, they use whatever they have at hand.”
Judging by their all-American looks, Grinker and Young seem an unlikely pair to launch such an authentic-minded Chinese restaurant. Grinker is a Brooklyn native, while Young grew up in the Philadelphia area. Their shared passion for Asian cuisine stems from the time they first met, back in the late 1990s, while working at a Chinese restaurant called A Single Pebble in Barre, Vermont; they were both students at the New England Culinary Institute in nearby Montpelier at the time. Young says her first visit to the restaurant was like a scene straight out of the 1994 Ang Lee film Eat Drink Man Woman, with its backyard garden full of ceramic pots and hanging ducks. “It was like stepping back in time 500 years,” she says. The head chef was a guy named Steve Bogart, whom Grinker describes as a “really quirky genius” and a “master” of Chinese cooking. “We’ve learned much of our technique through him,” he says.
Perhaps the most interesting technique from the Bogart playbook, which is presently on display at Kings County Imperial, is the wok-fried mock eel ($9) made with shiitake mushrooms (and, yes, a healthy dose of the house soy sauce). It’s a nod to the Chinese Buddhist tradition of “mimicking the flavors and textures of animal proteins in vegetarian cooking,” Grinker says, but the method is classic Bogart. Texturally, the mushroom does a marvelous job standing in for the freshwater serpent. “One side of the shiitake mushroom is kind of scaly; the other side is smoother, more like the flesh of the eel,” he explains. But the precise preparation is something Grinker and Young are keeping under wraps. “We can’t divulge the secret of how we get the shiitake mushrooms to be, like, four feet long,” Grinker says. “It’s a cutting procedure. That’s as much as we’re going to say.”
Since their Single Pebble days, Grinker and Young have traveled extensively throughout China, both in tandem and individually, further immersing themselves in the vast country’s various foodways. Kings County Imperial represents their specific interest in the cuisine of central and southwestern China. Many dishes lean toward Sichuan cooking, but not all adhere to the intensely spicy heat that most Westerners tend to associate with that style of food. The Sichuan Marinated Duck ($22) is a good example. The meat marinates in Sichuan spices for four days, then steams for 100 minutes. Grinker later adds a light egg-white wash and wok-fries it prior to serving. When it’s done, the duck is exceptionally tender — “like Chinese duck confit,” Grinker says. “It’s Sichuan all the way, even though it’s not necessarily knock-your-head-off spicy.”
In the back of the restaurant, you’ll find another one of its more interesting features: an outdoor garden sprouting with heirloom Chinese produce, including four types of cucumbers, five types of greens, onion, eggplant, an assortment of edible flowers and herbs used in the restaurant’s cocktails, and many other things. “We have yardlong bean, which is a Chinese varietal that will trellis up onto the rafters,” says Young, rattling off the DIY agricultural inventory at a table precariously positioned under the branches of ripening peach tree that is actually rooted in the lot next door. “The beans will grow about 12 inches long, and that’s used in our dry-fried green beans,” she says. Soon the partners will plant their own Sichuan peppercorn. Small dragon statues watch over the entire plot.
This lush setting wasn’t originally so zen. When the duo signed the lease back in January, Young says the backyard was basically just a big pile of junk. “There were times when I was like, ‘Are we going to find a body out here?’” she says. “It was that gross.”
The initial disarray recalls the early days of Grinker and Young’s other Brooklyn restaurant, the perennially popular Stone Park Cafe in Park Slope, which they opened with partner Josh Foster in 2004. Today, the Fifth Avenue location is part of a vibrant retail strip in a neighborhood that often feels like a free-range nursery, teeming with young children and their doting, stroller-pushing, upwardly mobile parents. But when it opened more than a decade ago, the scene looked a lot different. “When we signed the lease, it was a derelict corner,” Young says. “That park across the street was littered with needles.”
Stone Park benefited early on from a hugely positive two-star review in The New York Times, which apparently caught the upstart operators completely unawares. “[Former restaurant critic Frank] Bruni came to our place five times, and we had no clue,” Grinker says. “And when they called to tell us that the Times was taking a photograph of our place for a review, we thought it was a prank. We were like, ‘Who’s fucking with us?’ We were hoping not to get no stars. When we opened Stone Park, you were lucky if you didn’t have to wait 45 minutes for your appetizer. It was a shitshow. We were totally over our heads. We got lucky.”
However fortunate they might have been, the Park Slope restaurant remains a smashing success. The place is practically always open. “Christmas, Thanksgiving — we do it all,” notes Grinker. “We were closed July 4 for dinner; we stayed open for lunch.” On weekends, the sidewalk outside is usually cluttered with groups of diners waiting for a table. “We do 350 to 400 covers in, like, four hours,” Grinker says. “We turn the place six times. It’s nuts.” When asked about the winning formula, the pair modestly credit the staff and the focus on serving simple, wholesome food, like the neighborhood-favorite short rib hash. “We just cook the food we like to eat,” Grinker says.
Originally, the partners had considered making Stone Park a Chinese restaurant, but ultimately they went for something more accessible at that time. Things have changed mightily in the 11 years since then. With the enduring popularity of restaurants like Red Farm and Mission Chinese, New Yorkers have never seemed as open to Asian flavors as they are now. “This is the right time to be hitting the scene,” says Grinker, who adds that the restaurant’s devotion to authentic Chinese techniques and recipes should help it stand out from the pack of New York’s other Asian-themed hot spots, which sometimes veer into fusion territory. To wit: You won’t find pastrami in either the dumplings or the kung pao at Kings County Imperial.
If the Stone Park experience is any indication, then the planned dim sum brunch at Kings County Imperial should be an especially big hit. Then again, Williamsburg is no Park Slope, and things could work out much differently in the new digs. “It’s a young, late crowd,” Young says of the new demographic, noting that the Williamsburg dining room was busy at 11 p.m. just the night before. Compare that to Park Slope, where the kitchen closes at 10 p.m. “And often, that feels a little late,” she says.
Moving forward, Grinker and Young are planning to adjust the operation to better suit the eating habits of their newfound night-owl clientele. “We’re hoping to do a late-night dim sum menu until 2 a.m. on the weekends and probably until 12 during the week,” Young says. “Just judging from last night, I think it will be popular.”
Kings County Imperial, 20 Skillman Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11211, 718-610-2000; kingscountyimperial.com