During a recent three-course lunch at Great Neck’s newest Chinese restaurant, Coco Palace, on Northern Boulevard, every dish I sampled was new to me. This is one of a very few restaurants in New York serving the cuisine of Yunnan province, and certainly the first to open on Long Island.
Yunnan is in China’s southwest, bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and shares with those cuisines a tropical brightness and clarity, as well as a reliance on rice noodles (as opposed to wheat). Coco Palace, which takes over the corner storefront occupied, from 2010 to 2012, by Caspian Grill, is a sharp-looking place, dominated by blue Yunnanese batik-print textiles and colorful, hand-embroidered pillows.
As a pre-meal snack, we were offered a plate of crunchy buckwheat crackers, each one shaped like a tiny I-beam. Our meal started with a sliced loaf of tofu marinated in soy, sesame and five-spice powder. Next came Jingpo chicken, a cold dish comprising tender shreds of chicken breast and chopped peanuts in a spicy lemon sauce. Delicately fried slices of mushroom were subtly flavored with Sichuan peppercorns, which offset the earthiness with little sparks of tongue-numbing heat.
The main event was Yunnan’s most famous dish, Crossing the Bridge Noodles. For this, the waiter brought to our table a small wooden case and burner on which he placed a small caldron of simmering pork-and-chicken bone broth. He opened the case to reveal a series of little dishes containing chicken, pork, strips of omelet, squid, shrimp wood ear mushrooms, chives and scallions, which he proceeded to add to the broth in succession. Finally he stirred in a bowl of snow-white rice noodles and instructed us to let the whole thing cook for a few minutes before digging in.
The last few years have seen a sharp uptick in the quality of Chinese restaurants on Long Island but most of the exciting new places — Spicy Home Tasty in Commack, Cheng Du in Franklin Square, FAN in Deer Park, Kitchen Melody in Great Neck — are Sichuan. With the opening of Blue Wave, a Shanghainese eatery in Williston Park, and, now, Coco Palace, Long Islanders have the opportunity to appreciate Chinese regional cuisine in all its glory.
Coco Palace is at 19 Northern Blvd., Great Neck, 516-708-1978.