ben berg's best food yet
Midas-touch restaurateur Ben Berg serves up opening date for new NYC-inspired Chinese restaurant on WashAve
Ben Berg never lacks confidence, but the restaurateur is feeling particularly excited for Benny Chows, his new Chinese restaurant that’s opening Wednesday, June 28 at 1818 Washington Ave. His company Berg Hospitality already operates popular restaurants such as The Annie Cafe, B&B Butchers, and Trattoria Sofia, but Benny Chows, an homage to Berg’s favorite New York City Cantonese restaurants, has a special place in his heart.
“I gotta tell you I think this is probably the best food we’ve put out in the whole company,” Berg tells CultureMap.
Brian Sutton, Berg Hospitality’s vice president of culinary, worked with consulting chef Doron Wong to develop a menu that covers Cantonese classics, Chinese American favorites, and dim sum. Wong helped recruit executive chef Shirong Mei, who worked in Hong Kong before coming to Houston as the executive chef of upscale dim sum restaurant Yauatcha. Mei also ran the kitchen at One Dim Sum in Midtown (recently rebranded as Taste of Mulan).
“I love him. Everything he does is great,” Berg says about chef Mei. “He’s worked for some great places all over. He opened Yauatcha in London and Hawaii. He knows what he’s doing. Good guy, too.”
The menu contains a few nods to Houston, such as serving moo shu pork on a sizzling platter in a presentation that’s similar to fajitas. Benny Chows’ egg rolls are loaded with brisket from Truth Barbeque, the Washington Avenue restaurant ranked third in the state by Texas Monthly.
“You can take a tiny bit of credit for that, because I asked you awhile ago who makes the best brisket in Houston. I went to Leonard [Botello IV, Truth’s owner and pitmaster]. He was cool about it,” Berg says. “The crunch outside, the smoke in his brisket. It’s really yummy.”
As Berg acknowledged on a recent episode of CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, he wanted Benny Chows to serve cold sesame noodles, a dish that’s an East Coast staple but rarely served in Houston’s Chinese American restaurants. Benny Chows’ version uses udon noodles tossed in peanut sauce that gets some heat from chili oil. The restaurateur says his chef “nailed” the recipe.
“I love that peanut flavor. It’s got that nice spice that hits you in the end,” he says. “They’re fantastic. We nailed them. I’m very happy.”
Mei’s experience with dim sum is reflected in Benny Chows’ menu, which includes three different soup dumplings preparations — classic pork, pork and crab, and truffled chicken — along with potstickers made with Berkshire pork, rangoons made with jumbo lump crab, and scallion pancakes that can be topped with caviar. Mapo Tofu stays vegan thanks to the use of Impossible meat, and beef with broccoli gets a luxurious glow up courtesy of filet mignon.
Peking duck will be a focal point of Benny Chows menu. The restaurant is sourcing seven-pound Jurgielewicz ducks from Pennsylvania. Available in limited quantities, they’re served with hoisin sauce, cranberry sauce, and housemade pancakes.
“It’s a three-day process,” Berg says about preparing the duck. “They’re doing it the old school way, drying it for two days. Cooking them, the skin is so beautifully crisp. The meat is just awesome.”
A similar effort has gone into the restaurant’s design. Sam Governale, Berg’s vice president of design & experience, worked with Gail McCleese of Sensitori to source Chinese antiques that decorate the restaurant. The main dining room features hand-painted red and gold wallpaper that tells a story. A gold bouquet of cherry blossoms serves as a visual focal point.
“It’s a complete landscape scene that goes around the dining room. The most I’ve ever spent on something like that,” Berg says. “The red and the gold in these Chinese landscape scenes kind of takes your breath away, I feel.”
An alley between the two buildings serves as Benny Chows’ patio. It’s decorated with paper lanterns an an homage to New York’s Chinatown.
Similarly, the cocktail menu nods to many of the legendary New York Chinese restaurants that inspired Benny Chows. While Houstonians may not recognize names like Wo Hop or China Club, they will recognize Mama’s China Garden, an homage to the downtown restaurant that’s served Houston’s best egg rolls since 1969. Many of the house cocktails are infused with teas sourced from Tealeaves, a luxury tea purveyor. “It creates visually stunning drinks with some great colors,” Berg adds.
Benny Chows will open for dinner service Wednesday night with lunch service beginning the next day. The restaurant opens daily at 11 am.
Benny Chows is one of several restaurants Berg Hospitality plans to open this year. In approximately two months, Tavola, a new Italian restaurant that’s been created by renovations to the La Table space next to The Annie Cafe, will begin service. Next up will be Annabelle Brasserie, a new restaurant in the Autry Park mixed-use development. Luxurious steakhouse Turner’s Cut will follow approximately a month after Annabelle. Then comes the all-new La Table, an updated version of the French fine dining restaurant. At some point in the middle of those openings, Buttermilk Baby, a retro-style diner centered around burgers, biscuits, and Carvel ice cream, will debut in the M-K-T development in the Heights.