Things are looking up, down on South Street.
The latest addition to the much-improved Seaport is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s sparkling new, monumentally scaled Tin Building, the biggest, brassiest fancy food hall and market that modern day New York has ever seen. Sprawling 53,000 square feet across three floors in a renovated landmark structure, the project is more than a mouthful for even the most dedicated foodie to swallow.
Offering up everything from serious, sit-down dining to gourmet takeout, the edible extravaganza is simply too vast and varied to immediately grasp. But I’m ready to anoint the ambitious project’s early breakout star: an utterly adorable, classic Chinese-inspired restaurant called the House of the Red Pearl.
Hidden behind a curtain, Red Pearl’s 70 seats on the second floor are destined to be the hottest destination amidst a sea of them. The room’s retro-style Oriental motifs will likely tick off “cultural appropriation” grinches, who regard such things as exploitative. (Wait until they find out that the chef’s name is Matthew Rojas and he’s from Arizona.) Judging by the happy faces, many of them Chinese, that I’ve seen around the room, most diners seem thrilled to be here.
Built in the early 1900s and for many years an integral part of the Fulton Fish Market, the Tin Building was recently relocated and painstakingly reassembled over the East River, thirty feet east of the landmark’s original footprint, right next to the elevated FDR Drive.
Years in the making, the collective dream of Vongerichten and Seaport operator Howard Hughes Corporation boasts six sit-down restaurants, as many grab-and-go spots, several bars and wine bars, plus a gazillion food markets and retail stores of every culinary stripe.
Right now, their myriad pleasures can only be sampled in small bites, as swarms of locals and tourists are already doing. The Tin Building is currently open in what they’re calling preview mode, operating from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. It won’t have a full schedule until sometime after Labor Day — and that’s only if Vongerichten can manage to hire 300 more employees on top of the 300 who work there now. No small task, given today’s labor market.
Catch them when they’re open, and you’ll find a meal at the House of the Red Pearl a tantalizing amuse-bouche for the rest of the feast. Lovingly crafted by design firm Roman and William, the look is said to be inspired by 1960s James Bond movies and the Peacock Room, a famous interior painted by James McNeill Whistler, installed at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The average diner will walk in and think, “old-fashioned New York Cantonese restaurant crossed with a speakeasy.” Gold-on-red chinoiserie wall, velvet-upholstered banquettes and booths, and ceiling fixtures of clustered, onion-shaped Vietnamese-style lanterns delight anyone with an eye for beauty and a taste for fun.
The Red Pearl has a clandestine air, thanks to its secluded location behind an Asian food boutique called Mercantile East, hawking oils and salts and sauces. (All products are labeled “Tin Building,” like many others for sale in the complex.)
More love seems to have gone into the look than any of the Tin Building’s other attractive eateries, such as the all-Italian Frenchman’s Dough and truly French T. Brasserie. Maybe it reflects Vongerichten’s long standing love affair with Asian flavors that began with his first kitchen job in Bangkok at age 23.
The menu’s 17 items (which are still evolving) are sectioned into appetizers, larger seafood and meat items and noodle-and-rice dishes. They include the best tomato egg drop soup I ever had, and a sweet, summer corn fried rice with ginger and crispy fried egg, where every kernel and grain made itself known individually. Supple shrimp and pork wontons arrive in fragrant, drinkable chili oil.
No reservations are taken. But don’t wait until after Labor Day — what’s now a short wait will very quickly become an exercise in patience.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.