Standing across the street from i-Skewers, trying to decide whether you should even be going to a restaurant named i-Skewers, you'll probably notice a trio of hairnets peeking above the windowsill. Get closer — if only to get a look at the menu — and you'll find the hairnets are attached to a trio of cooks, sitting at the tables on the left side of the restaurant, hunched over bowls of ground meat and nuggets of dough. Rolling, stuffing, and crimping, occasionally looking up at the Chinese variety shows on the TV above their heads, the cooks quickly fill a giant tray with precise rows of dumplings, then whisk it off to the kitchen and begin again.
It's been only eight or nine months since I last ate there, back when it was a Chinese shabu-shabu place that gave my guest and me some rumbling, queasy after-effects. It came as no surprise when the restaurant folded a few months later. Two months ago, the owners of Kingdom of Dumpling and King of Noodles took over the space, playing off a restaurant-naming fad — iCreation and iThai have also opened this year — instead of the more prosaic English translation of the restaurant's Chinese name: Skewers and Boiled Dumplings.
Culinary failings aside, the previous owners had classed up the place, accenting the rich, auburn hues of the walls with multicolored glass tiles, installing black tables and white plastic chairs, and lighting a perennial fire in the fireplace. The effect has dimmed under the new regime, which has added a couple of dumpling freezers to the dining room and turned half of it into a prep kitchen, complete with a giant stand mixer that occasionally shudders and growls, churning out more dough. A couple of the hairnet-wearing cooks double as motherly servers who worry over their customers, many of whom are in their teens and early 20s, and bring out extra treats as enticements for new customers. It's a funny little place, where you have to go a few times to figure out what to order. Since most dishes cost $6.95, that's not hard to do.
i-Skewers' menu is divided up into sections for grilled items, Northern Chinese street snacks, noodle soups, and boiled dumplings, as well as a short list of stir-fried rice and noodle dishes, but platters of dumplings dominate the tables. Served by the dozen, they arrive looking rumpled and smelling of wet flour, threatening anticlimax until you bite into them. The wonderful pork with napa cabbage dumplings ($5.95), in particular, tend to spurt across the table until you learn to bite off one corner and suck the ginger-scented juices out, dipping the remaining pocket into a dish of black vinegar to counter the meat with a hit of its fruity acidity. Vegetarian dumplings ($6.95), stuffed with ground green beans and edamame, are mushy but redolent with toasted sesame oil; the pork with chives ($6.95) have a bright flare to them; and the pork, shrimp, and chives ($6.95) balance out the allium bite of the chives with a coy crustacean sweetness.
The skins of the boiled dumplings are just as thin as they can probably be to withstand the roiling water. And when they're perfectly cooked, they're a chewy foil to the meat and juice locked inside. Whoever's doing the cooking right now, though, occasionally pulls them out of the pot a minute too late; a third of the batches I ordered over the course of three visits had wrappers that were soggier and slipperier than they should be. One way to avoid disappointment is to order the dumplings pan-fried (which isn't described on the menu in English), so they emerge from the kitchen with browned bottoms and silkier, firmer wrappers.
The rest of the meal is a hodgepodge, both in terms of quality and taste. The cracker-thin green onion pancake ($3.95) and thicker half-moon pancake stuffed with chives and dried shrimp ($5.95) are far too oily, and the garlic chicken wings ($6.95) and lotus root slices ($5.95) are coated in the same cloyingly sweet garlic sauce. Conversely, there are also appealingly twisty, bouncy tofu noodles ($5.95) tossed in sesame paste and soy sauce, cucumbers ($5.95) with a potent crunch and even more potent garlic-sesame coating, and soup noodles with pork and preserved vegetables ($6.95) suspended in a robust chicken broth. The soft, hand-cut noodles are tangled up with threads of poached pork and mustard greens, whose deep, mineral-tinged flavor infuses the broth as the bowl sits.
While the meat skewers ($6.95) range from the tough to the inedible, the grilled vegetables listed in the same section of the menu are a revelation, coated in the same blend of minuscule cumin seeds, chiles, and salt as the beef and lamb kidneys. String beans ($3.95) shrivel in the dry heat from the grill, which concentrates their flavors and preserves their crunch; the spices clinging to the beans burst between the teeth in a series of staccato, pungent pops. The a-choy ($3.95) is even better, the skinny heads of straight-spined Taiwanese lettuce softening over the flames, the smoky char on the leaves and the cumin crunch melding with their natural bitterness.
And then there are the sweet potatoes ($3.95). Thin, custard-centered slices of the orange tuber pick up a crisp shell of crystallized starches during their time on the grill, and just before serving the cooks drizzle their surfaces with honey. If you don't order the sweet potatoes yourself, a hairnet-sporting server may just bring you a plate to entice you to return. So far, the bribe has worked.